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Can Natural Value be Restored?

The excerpts below from Robert Elliot’s essay Can Natural Value Be Restored? explore whether nature, once degraded or spoiled, can every truly be rehabilitated or restored. And if it can be rehabilitated or restored, does that environment still retain the same natural value it once possessed? Read this essay in full on page 72 of Wild Earth, Volume 7, Issue 2, where it was originally published.

Can Natural Value Be Restored?

Consider the case of a mining company that wants to mine an ore-body using the open pit method. Imagine that environmentalists are concerned about the violent damage such mining will do across a wide area. The environmentalists are concerned that mining will destroy certain natural values associated with the surface ecology, which, they say, has hitherto been undisturbed by humans. Spokespeople for the mining company agree, perhaps surprisingly, that the mining process will destroy natural values. They accept that if those values would be permanently lost, then the case against mining is compelling.

Toward the horizon on the right side of the frame, a red standstone plateau rises out of the vermillion sand and green grass landscape.The sky is blue and dotted with fluffy white clouds.
Bears Ears National Monument in Arizona,  at risk of being opened up to special interests like logging, mining, and drilling. Photo: Bob Wick, BLM

They claim, however, that the natural values destroyed in mining can be fully restored, and they promise that the company will do exactly that. They promise that the company will, once the relevant minerals are recovered, rehabilitate the mine site, recreate the original surface ecology and thus restore all natural values destroyed by the mining. Their argument is that because natural value will be restored, the case against mining is weak. They support this claim with an account of the various economic benefits that will accrue to humans, at least presently existing ones, if the mining goes ahead.

It is easy to imagine variants of this argument which seek to justify various kinds of environmental despoliation. For example, a defense of clear-cutting Wild forests could take the same form. This style of argument has some initial appeal, for it recognizes that there are natural values: values that directly emerge from or are associated with the intrinsic characteristics of wild areas and that do not derive from the uses to which such areas might be put or from the benefits or pleasures they might provide for humans.

The Replacement Thesis

In other words, the argument concedes a core claim of environmentalism: It also accepts that the existence of natural values generates human obligations toward wild areas: it accepts that natural values constitute a compelling reason for letting wild Nature alone. It claims, though, that natural value can be restored and promises to do so. If natural value can be and will be restored then the obligation to leave wild Nature alone is weakened, perhaps to the point where it has little force. Let us call this key premise, the claim that natural value can be restored, the replacement thesis.

A snow-capped mountain rises on the horizon, as a hill dotted with trees rises in front of it.
Mount Rainier National Park, an important core reserve in the Pacific Wildway. If degraded by human involvement, could the natural value of such a majestic view be restored? Photo: Katy Schaffer

This dangerously seductive argument can be challenged at several points. First, it might be argued that the argument overstates the benefits that would result from environmental despoliation. Taking the case initially considered, it might be urged that the benefits to humans of mining are exaggerated or that equivalent benefits can be achieved in some other way. But this response will have most bite if natural values cannot be restored. For even if the benefits of mining are exaggerated or even if there is some alternative way of realizing similar benefits, there is scope to discount considerably the significance of the loss of natural values, because they can and will be restored, or so it is claimed.

Second, it might be urged that even if natural values can in principle be restored, most likely they will not in fact be restored. In the mining case it might be maintained that efforts at rehabilitation are almost certain to fail to create a surface ecology exactly like the earlier one. This might be due to some failure of will on the part of pie mining company or, where the will persists, a failure of science and technology. Either way, since the features of the original surface ecology are not exactly replicated, not all of the original natural value is restored.

These two styles of response are important and should never be neglected. There is, however, a third style of response which does not depend for its cogency on contingencies such as current technological limitations or the inaccurate calculation of benefits. This third response urges that natural values can not be fully restored, not even in principle. The claim is that even if rehabilitation is possible, such that, say, a surface ecology completely indistinguishable from the one existing prior to despoliation is recreated, an important basis for natural values is missing. In what follows, this third response is defended and those natural values that cannot be restored are delineated. If this response is sound, it decisively defeats the seductive argument.

Restorations that accord with natural designs and are constructed out of natural components do possess significant value; and, arguably at least, we have a duty to restore value that we destroy or erode.

The replacement thesis entails that the full value of some piece of the natural environment at any given time derives entirely from characteristics or properties that can be replicated, reproduced, or recreated. Imagine that an area of rainforest is cleared and later replanted to create an environment exactly similar to the forest there earlier. According to the replacement thesis, the earlier and later environments necessarily have the same value. I argue, however, that some of the value of the earlier rainforest derives from a property it possessed that cannot possibly be replicated. Specifically, the distinctive, natural genesis or origin of the earlier rainforest contributed to its value. The earlier rainforest had naturally evolved, whereas the later rainforest is the direct product of human artifice. This, I claim, makes for a significant value difference between them.

The Anti-Replacement Thesis

The replacement thesis is flawed because it assumes that the factual differences, upon which the value differences supervene, are all revealed by a snapshot. They are not. The particular history or genesis of something can be one of those characteristics or properties upon which the value of that thing is discreetly based. That a thing’s value can supervene on its relational properties, including its history, is the conceptual basis for that we might call the anti-replacement thesis.

Fall colors along a slow river, with low colorful mountains in the background
Oswegatchie River, Five Ponds Wilderness Adirondacks, New York. Photo: George Wuerthner

The anti-replacement thesis distinguishes between full value and equal value. Full restoration would involve not merely creating something equal in value to something else that has been degraded or destroyed; it would also involve achieving that equal quantity of value by creating something with the very same pattern of value-adding or value-supporting properties earlier possessed by the thing degraded or destroyed. So, the anti-replacement thesis leaves open the abstract possibility that restored Nature could have value as great as original Nature.

In fact, however, restored Nature certainly would not have the same value as original Nature. This is partly because of the practical difficulties of restoring nature. More significant, it is because the property of being naturally evolved is intensely value-adding…

Restoring What We Destroy

Of course a restored natural environment may possess considerable intrinsic value; the anti-replacement thesis does not dispute this. While the original environment had more value than has a restored environment, the latter certainly has more value than the degraded environment. Restorations that accord with natural designs and are constructed out of natural components do possess significant value; and, arguably at least, we have a duty to restore value that we destroy or erode.

Robert Elliot was Professor of Philosophy and Dean of Arts at Sunshine Coast University College in Australia. He wrote extensively on environmental ethics. This article is based on a more academic piece, “Extinction. Restoration, Naturalness’,’ Environmental Ethics, 16 (1,994): 135-144. Elliot first wrote about the ideas discussed in this article in “Faking Nature,” Inquiry, 25 (1982): 81-93.

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