Ecological Restoration
Vol. 24 Number 2

Human Systems

I have been thinking a lot lately about what it takes to plan, install, manage, monitor and sustain ecological restoration projects. Sure, it takes research, tools and perseverance. But most of all it takes people – typically lots of people. And what I am discovering is that it takes people that we never even thought had any relevance to the initiative in the first place to make an ecological restoration project a truly long term success.

As biologists, ecologists, landscape architects, and engineers, we are good at conceptualizing webs of connections and relationships between components of natural systems. We develop complex frameworks that describe inter-relationships between nutrient flows and species diversity, or hydraulic models describing the relationship between river flows and sediment transport. But how many times do we develop conceptual models or map out relationship webs describing how people intervene, interact and relate to an ecological restoration project? After all, aren’t human endeavors systems too? Yet we typically ignore human systems in our restoration endeavors, or at best we give it fleeting attention. After all, it’s more fun to be tinkering with planting compositions, counting soil microbes or burning prairies then to be forging relationships with adversaries, reaching out to the disenfranchised or participating in true dialogue.

People, or more broadly termed ‘stakeholders’, I am ever more convinced are the key to the long term success of a restoration project. More so then specifying the right soil, selecting the right plants, or processing the right knowledge. In fact, SER International and IUCN came to the same conclusion in 2004 with the publication of Ecological Restoration – a means of conserving biodiversity and sustaining livelihoods; A call to action by the ecological restoration joint working group of SER International and the IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management. The document points out that principles of good ecological restoration practice must not only recognize attributes from ecosystems, but is should also incorporate elements from human systems, including:

  • Ensuring all stakeholders are fully aware of the full range of possible alternatives, opportunities, costs and benefits offered by restoration.
  • Empowering all stakeholders, especially disenfranchised resource users.
  • Engaging all relevant sectors of society and disciplines, including the displaced and powerless, in planning, implementation and monitoring.
  • Involving relevant stakeholders in the definition of boundaries for restoration.
  • Considering all forms of historical and current information, including scientific and indigenous and local knowledge, innovations and practices.

Like modeling ecological processes, stakeholder engagement takes time, effort and commitment. And it takes dialogue. Most of what we do today is communicate. In fact, communication is easier to do then ever. Thanks to cellular phones, the internet and air travel, communicating with someone half-way around the world is easier then ever. How come then, miscommunication is blamed for many of the problems we face in ecological restoration. Is it because we are communicating but not really engaged in dialogue? Dialogue requires a commitment to speaking and listening in a more deliberate way than normally takes place in ordinary conversation or in discussion. Dialogue requires a commitment to speaking and listening more deliberately, which allows deeper understanding to emerge and encourages a sense of shared meaning. Perhaps if we entered into true dialogue with all stakeholders our ecological restoration research, projects and initiatives would be resounding successes.

Maybe we should approach ecological restoration first from a people perspective. Identify and map out the myriad of people, relationships, and cultural processes that will influence the ecological restoration process. Assess the critical human factors that will facilitate the success of the initiative and plan for these in our research and projects. Then we can watch ecological restoration really sustain itself.

In the Fifth Discipline, the Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, author Peter Senge makes the case that human systems thinking is a shift of mind – from seeing ourselves as separate from the world to connected to the world. Perhaps ecological restoration is as much about restoring human spirit as it is about restoring ecosystems?

Let us know what you think?
Should SER International be doing more to support the integration of human systems thinking into our programs, conferences and work? Give us your thoughts and suggestions. Call (520.622.5485) or write us at

Keith Bowers, Chair
Society for Ecological Restoration International

Further Reading

Meet Water Resources Engineer Kayla Brown
New Mexico Must Become a Catcher of Rain
Ripple Effects
Get to know Water Resources Engineer Jake Radeff
Meet Conservation Biologist Nolan Schillerstrom

More From This Author

Restoring Our Future
Ecological Restoration: In the year…
Cultivating our collective health and well-being: Pathways to Planetary Health
A Creek Runs Through It: Museum Being Constructed in a Ravine
Green Roofs