What does it mean to “restore” nature?

This is a big topic for The Socratic Trailhead, in part because I’m working in restoration ecology.  One of the things I do is organize volunteers at nature preserves to remove invasive species and install native plants.  So I’m particularly interested in asking whether these projects are really what they’ve been made out to be: attempts to “heal” nature for nature’s sake.  But it’s also a fascinating topic because it asks what it means to be human in a non-human world.

Professor Eric Katz is a critic of restorations.  He recently published an article, “Further Adventures in the Case Against Restoration.”  Katz thinks restorations can have positive purposes, such as mitigating damage caused by pollution or recreating wetlands that were destroyed by development.  But he takes issue with their meaning:

To call the product of an ecological restoration project the restoration of nature is, as I provocatively proclaimed twenty years ago, a “big lie.”

Professor Katz compares restorations to works of art and art forgeries.


We care about authenticity in art because forgeries have far less value than the real thing.

In the case of artworks, problems arise because the original artist or artists are no longer the creator of the work we see…

Here’s the twist for restorations:

…but in the case of the restoration of natural systems, there is no original artist or designer.

So how do you make a forgery of nature?

You present a restored landscape as if it were the product of nature, when in fact it was created by humans for particular purposes – what Katz refers to as artifacts.

With restored natural systems the problems with authenticity…come about because we add human intentionality and design….This means that a project of ecological restoration is not really the restoration of a natural system; it is the creation of an artifact, an artifactual system.

Just like a forged painting has less value than the authentic version, a restored landscape has – according to Katz – less “natural value” than a landscape that has not been subjected to human design.  He distinguishes nature from artifacts, which are created for a purpose.

Unlike artifacts, a large part of what makes natural entities valuable is their freedom from human control.

If we mistakenly see nature in the products of human domination of nature, we’ll fail to see how much of the world our species has technologically transformed.  We’ll have been duped by forgeries.

If we misunderstand the meaning of restoration, we fail to understand the extent of the human impact on the natural environment.


There are objections.  Some philosophers argue that restorations provide opportunities for humans to restore our relationship with nature – to become more sensitive, aware, perhaps even loving.  But it seems odd to base these positive relationships on addressing – each time – prior harm committed by humans.

More importantly, Katz doesn’t think such relationships are even genuine.

I am calling into question the entire notion that humans can have an authentic experience with nature when they are dealing with a restoration project.

He draws a comparison to gardening:

Working in a garden—feeling the soil in one’s fingers, planting the seeds, pulling weeds, and watering the plants—may produce positive human experiences but these are not the experiences of working with natural entities. A garden is not a natural area…Working in a garden teaches us how to control natural processes; it teaches us how to convert natural processes into an artifactual human project designed to serve human purposes.

Do you buy Katz’s argument that restorations – like gardens – are not natural?  Are they like art forgeries?  Do you share his concern that thinking they are natural will lead us to understate our impact on the Earth?

Katz has been something of a maverick.  His view on restorations is not shared by most environmental philosophers (at least, from what I’ve read to date).  In his article, he addresses some of his fellow philosophers’ objections.

Philosopher Norva Yeuk-Sze Lo raises the following questions (summarized in my words):

Q: What if a restoration’s purpose is to help non-human species?  Even if the restoration is an artifact, its purpose wouldn’t be to serve human interests.

A: Katz says it doesn’t matter; it’s still a purpose.

Q: What about humans who receive technological implants, such pacemakers?  Do they suddenly become artifacts?

A: Katz says that natural objects and artifacts exist on a spectrum.  So yes, a person with a pacemaker is slightly more “artifact” than they would be without one.

From tweezing eyebrows to plastic surgery, from pilates to liposuction, we turn our physical selves into artifactual projects. Thus, human beings can be considered to be artifacts: it all depends on where the modifications fall on the spectrum.

Q: Restorations attempt to return the land to a previous state of ecological health.  So we humans don’t decide what to do; nature does.  We’re just following nature’s blueprint.

A: There’s still a design in mind, even if it’s not our original idea.  If I build a bookcase, it’ll probably look like thousands of other bookcases that were built before.  Yet I still had a design in mind.

Professor Steven Vogel also raises questions (again, summarized in my words):

Q: Why treat humans differently than all other species?  How come our actions become non-natural?

A: I’m not sure Katz gives a straight answer here, but elsewhere he writes that,

Humanity is different from nature. Ultimately, I believe that this conceptual dualism is necessary for an understanding of what nature means.

Q: What if an artifact’s purpose is to be autonomous?  For instance, parents often intend to produce offspring, but they intend for their children to become independent, self-willed people.  Would you say that their children are artifacts because they were the product of the parent’s intentions?

A: Katz runs with the metaphor:

Restoration projects appear to be similar to the actions of dysfunctional parents who attempt to over manage and over direct the lives of their children in order to create specifically designed entities (a specific ecosystem or a specifically talented child). The idea that in either case we are designing and creating a self-directing entity free of external control is simply incorrect.


I’m hoping to publish an audio interview with Professor Katz…stay tuned.