Environmentalists have long bemoaned the modern alienation of humans from nature. One response to this alienation that has received surprisingly scant attention from scholars of environmental ethics, especially religious environmental ethics, is that of ecological restoration. Ecological restoration is the attempt to make nature whole through the science and art of repairing ecosystems that have been damaged by human activities. It "involves all manner of work with the land, from removing roads and restoring the contours of terrain to removal of exotic plant and animal species that are eliminating or out-competing native species; to planting trees, grasses, and wildflowers; to propagating endangered plant and animal species."1 Restoration projects range from the multi-billion dollar Kissimmee River project to restore over 25,000 acres of Everglades' wetlands to the large-scale effort to restore selected wetlands in industrial Brownfield sites in south Chicago's Lake Calumet region to the reintroduction of tall grass prairie ecosystems in various communities in the Midwest to reforestation efforts in Eastern Africa.
In a deeper sense, ecological restoration is the attempt to heal and make the nature-human relation whole. In its metaphysical understanding of the fundamental interconnectedness of nature and culture and in its practice, which provides a material bridge between people and land, ecological restoration is viewed by its proponents as providing a promising, and moral, model for human living with the natural world. In the actual practice of repairing earth – reintroducing, replanting, ripping out and so on – people are restored to earth. Additionally, ecological restoration as a healing practice is understood as a distinctive form of civic environmental engagement. In this way, ecological restoration "is part of a larger mission to create a society that respects democracy, decency, adherence to the rule of law, human rights, and the rights of women," as Nobel Peace Prize winner and founder of the Green Belt Movement Wangari Maathai writes.2
The primary purpose of this dissertation is to examine the significance of ecological restoration thought and practice for environmental ethics, especially religious and Christian environmental ethics, and for our understanding of the human relationship to nature. The key question that preoccupies it is: What if ecological restoration thought and practice were used to help shape a religious environmental ethic? More pointedly, what would a Christian restorative environmental ethic look like?
In order to address this question, the dissertation is divided into two parts: I. Restoring Earth, II. Restored to Earth. Part I (Restoring Earth) of this inquiry asks the following additional questions, in this order, related to the practice of restoring earth: What more exactly is ecological restoration, and what are some of the key scientific, social, and philosophical understandings of its meaning? How, if at all, is the meaning of ecological restoration expanded when religious and ethical perspectives are explicitly considered? In addition to being understood as a technical scientific practice, might ecological restoration also be viewed as a symbolic religious activity?
Building on the meanings for ecological restoration developed in Part I, Part Il (Restored to Earth) then asks: If ecological restoration is viewed as a form of symbolic action, what types of experiences, values, and virtues might restorative activities generate? In what ways do restoration-based experiences shed light on Christian understandings of nature spirituality? Are there religious understandings from the Christian tradition that may positively contribute to the ethics of ecological restoration? Might religious understandings of nature and humanity benefit the development of a broader culture of restoration?
The dissertation argues that ecological restoration provides a promising model for the nature-human relation, one that ought to shape twenty-first century environmentalism as well as religious environmental ethics. It further argues that the explicit treatment of ecological restoration as an ethical framework advances the field of Christian ethics in a more action oriented, experience-based direction, deepening our understanding of the way in which particular environmental activities shape certain moral ecological values, virtues, and norms. Analysis of transformative environmental practices such as restoration, I argue, can helpfully illuminate resources within the Christian tradition, and other traditions, for interpreting the human relationship to particular natural landscapes. The dissertation concludes that insofar as religious understandings of people and land are shaped by restorative actions, they can positively contribute to the formation of a restoration environmental culture.
1Stephanie Mills, In Service of the Wild: Restoring and Reinhabiting Damaged Land (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), 3. 2Wangari Maatthai, "A Billion Trees, A Singular Voice," in Reflections, Spring 2007, 5.