Ethical Synthesis: Baird Callicott on Bridging Ecological Restoration & Ecosystem Services with Philosophy & Ethics

Baird Callicott has devoted his life’s work to studying the ethical relationship between humans and nature. In fact, environmental ethics has a history of more than 40 years beginning with the work of Callicott and Holmes Rolston in the early 1970s. As a university distinguished research professor of philosophy at the University of North Texas, he has long been associated with exploring a core philosophy—the intrinsic value of nature. Now, he’s examining the instrumental value of it. Specifically, what are the implications of extending an ecosystem services approach to ecological restoration?

Callicott was awarded a fellowship at SESYNC for the fall of 2014 to study these relationships. He’s leading a multidisciplinary research team focused on how targeting ecosystem services may affect the way theorists conceive of and practitioners implement ecological restoration. The new research is tangential to his historic work on the intrinsic value of nature, because nature’s intrinsic value is not captured by the concept of ecosystem services. A May 13, 2014, New Yorker article, “Green is Good,” put the value of nature controversy succinctly: “There is an obvious limitation to this approach: business logic often doesn’t line up with green logic.”

For Callicott, the new focus on instrumental value—sometimes referred to as extrinsic value—couldn’t be timelier. Ecological restoration is not as clear cut as restoring a Victorian home to its 19th century glory. How ecological restoration is defined can change according to circumstances, especially when considering the value of the ecosystem services that each restoration project can offer. Trees grow. A landscape changes over time. Its ecosystem services change over time. The economic value of the land changes over time. And, in some cases, a complete restoration wouldn’t provide the ecosystem services that a current population desires. Consider the greater Chicago area. Historically, the whole region was an oak savanna: wide expanses of grasslands mingled with occasional oak trees. Now, the savanna has been displaced by trees and dense hardwood forests exist. What Callicott calls “classical ecological restoration” would mean the woodlands should be eliminated and replaced with lightly forested grasslands. “Most Chicagoans don’t want that,” said Callicott.

So how do ethics come into play when linking ecological restoration to ecosystem services? Callicott’s multidisciplinary research team is systematically working on that issue. This week he’s on a site visit to Wisconsin, where a planning team is deciding whether to restore a former military reserve to its natural state—a native prairie grassland—or maintain it in its current non-native condition as a “surrogate grassland,” because that too provides habitat for a large number of ground nesting avifauna and bats. “The service is biodiversity, but is it restoration?” Callicott asks.

As decision makers examine new plans for ecological restoration, and as their plans pass through the lens of ecosystem services, ethics in environmental science is an especially ripe area for synthesis research. Callicott says his synthesis team lends perspectives from the fields of law, economics, ecology, political science, and ethics—which have often taken antagonistic approaches. While the definition of synthesis is the act of combining elements to form something new, Callicott describes his research team’s style as “from multidisciplinarity to interdisciplinarity” and “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

Lisa Palmer is a journalist and public policy scholar at The Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, funded through an award to the University of Maryland from the National Science Foundation, is a research center dedicated to solving complex problems at the intersection of human and ecological systems.