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Novel Ecosystems, Familiar Injustices: The Promise of Justice-Oriented Ecological Restoration

by Michelle Garvey
2 Apr 2016 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: NeoColonial Politics of Sustainability [13] | Article

Environmentalism for the Anthropocene

Can U.S. environmentalism relieve, rather than exacerbate, ongoing patterns of injustice, and in so doing, meet the socio-ecological challenges of the Anthropocene?  I suggest that this possibility hinges on environmentalists’ ability to revisit their ideological foundations and refashion them.  According to environmental historian Roderick Nash,[1] whether to ensure nature’s sanctity apart from the humans who would tarnish it, or safely enclose its unruliness away from the people it supposedly stands to threaten, the preservationism that founds conventional U.S. environmentalisms circumscribes nonhuman nature, both physically and metaphorically, within city, state, and national parks. The preservationist mindset, with its roots in the colonial ideology that propelled Euro-Americans’ Westward expansionism and the simultaneous purging of indigenous inhabitants in “The Demographic Takeover,”[2] has everything to do with how, in the eyes of settler society, nonhuman nature became “environment” rather than “home,” “here,” “us,” “me.”

Since gaining major momentum in the mid-1980’s, the environmental justice paradigm offers a necessary alternative to the preservation paradigm for environmentalists by politicizing nature-culture distinctions.  Environmental justice calls attention to the deliberate ways marginalized human populations are unduly affected by environmental contamination, degradation, or lack of access to clean natural resources. For environmental justice advocates—predominantly the working class and women of color—“the environment” is conceptualized along a broad, integrated vision of nature and culture, or as environmental scholar Giovanna Di Chiro writes, as home: the place you live, work, and play.[3]

There are important affinities between environmental justice perspectives and race-conscious conceptions of the Anthropocene that bear relevancy to this study. Whereas “Athropocene” is typically defined as the current geologic epoch, wherein Earth’s ecosystems have been over-determined by human activities (climate change is one major consequence of this over-determination), cultural theorist Nicholas Mirzoeff asks the important question, which kinds of humans have replaced nonhuman nature’s activities?[4]  For as he argues, the central function of race within the framing of Earth’s systems has been displaced in much Anthropocene discourse.[5]  This displacement belies both the primary role race plays in contemporary climate injustices,[6] and the pivotal ways racial hierarchies structured the colonial conquests and systems of slavery for which “some of the first systemic anthropogenic environmental catastrophes” are responsible.[7]  Therefore, as we continue to contemplate the novel and terrible realities of climate change, we would do well to recognize the Anthropocene as an epoch marked by enormous stratification of human power and privilege.

My research explores the ways in which the forty year-old U.S. environmentalism of ecological restoration (ER) both destabilizes and reinforces preservationist nature politics, embodying an ambivalent approach to mitigating climate change.  In my past employment and ongoing volunteerism as a restorationist, I have found ER to be rather unique among environmentalisms in its embrace of nature-culture, human-nonhuman interdependencies, for in restoration, nature is co-created, precisely through the active interventions of humankind.  But at the same time, ER largely remains a practice that services established parks, prairies, forests, and wetlands—places often spatially and philosophically divorced from the urban or rural neighborhoods whose residents could also benefit from non-toxic, safe, and biodiverse green space.[8]  I surmise that this fact reflects U.S. environmentalism’s tradition of conceptualizing nature as fundamentally distinguished from culture.  While every ecologically vulnerable locale deserves restorative attention, by focusing on places coded as “wild” and “nonhuman,” restoration tacitly aligns itself with an elite preservationism rooted in settler colonialism, and misses crucial opportunities to combat the biosocial causes of polluted landscapes, social inequality, and global climate change, while creating resilient habitat for nonhuman species.

Failing to enact environmentalisms with awareness for the planet’s co-shaping between material and social forces—social forces stratified by systems of privilege and oppression—will often result in incomplete and thus ineffective attempts at weathering climate change, a consequence on which we simply cannot waste time.  In this article, I discuss one illustration of how human-nonhuman, nature-culture dilemmas can be confronted through a justice-oriented approach to ecological restoration on a climate-ravaged Louisiana island.  Putting recent news reports and interviews on the current realities of life on Isle de Jean Charles into conversation with burgeoning scholarship about ER’s role amidst climate change, I argue that justice-oriented restoration could empower and sustain those humans and nonhumans made most vulnerable to Anthropocene conditions.

Expendable People, Expendable Land

A confluence of colonial, racist, and environmentally exploitative actions over the past two hundred years have made the story of the barrier island of Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, a particularly sad example of injustice.  There, twenty-five Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw families—only 30 of 300 original residents[9]—continue to witness the steady decay of their homeland.  A former paradise that grew native fruit trees and supplied people with fresh- and saltwater species of fish to eat and sell, the island is now an ecologically vulnerable, defenseless ridge of land eroding into the ocean.

Ancestors of today’s island inhabitants retreated to Isle de Jean Charles in the early 1800s to escape miscegenation discrimination on the mainland.  As the Isle de Jean Charles website indicates, all families were French-Native American, despite erroneous census documentation that reports early inhabitants as “Negro” or “Mulatto” (it was illegal for Native Americans to purchase land until 1876).  At that time, the state began selling parcels of the island, which was previously considered “uninhabitable swamp land.”[10]  To the contrary, Isle de Jean Charles flooded periodically, but the floods were bearable and replenished the land with nutrients from Mississippi River silt.[11] The island provided plentiful resources for fishing, trapping, and gathering, thus supporting a growing community that may have been without economic and educational advantages, yet was self-sufficient nonetheless.[12]  Then, in 1948, the oil rigs moved into the gulf.

As decades of environmental justice activism testifies, racialized and classed locales are repeatedly sited for hazardous resource extraction and other pollutive activities, while glossed over for environmental protections and conservation initiatives.  Isle de Jean Charles is one such place.  Its geographic location and population demographics have made it the dual victim of damaging fossil fuel sequestration as well as climatic events primarily resulting from fossil fuel consumption around the world.  After abandoning the region in the 1960s due to unfruitful oil exploration, permanent scars left by the oil companies remain. Six oil rigs and extensive canals were plundered through fragile cypress forests, mangroves, and marshes, which now funnel salt water into Isle de Jean Charles’ freshwater ecosystem.[13]

Furthermore, dam and levee building on the Mississippi river over the years has isolated Isle de Jean Charles from its sedimentation, which would have helped replenish the land with nutrients and mass, preventing it from sinking.[14]  Too salinized to grow much of anything needed to retain shoreline, the once twenty-four square mile island today stands at a half-mile long by a quarter-mile wide.[15] Ninety percent of the land has been engulfed by the ocean.[16] The single road linking the island to the mainland continues to sink as sea levels rise. “So essentially,” as the film documentary on Isle de Jean Charles Can’t Stop the Water asserts, “it becomes a place that you can’t get off of or can’t get to.”[17]

If the sinking road illustrates how Isle de Jean Charles is cut off from the mainland physically, the federal government’s refusal to protect the island and its people perhaps demonstrates an ideological segregation.  Consecutive hurricanes attributed to climate change—especially Juan (1985), Andrew (1992), Katrina (2005), Rita (2005), Gustav (2008), and Isaac (2012)—left permanent flood and erosion damage on the island.  The ecology can no longer recuperate from these storms, and the residents are without the income to rebuild homes year after year.  Following Hurricane Katrina, the federal government granted the Army Corps of Engineers $900 million to build a seventy-two mile levee fortress through Louisiana’s Terrebone and Lafourche parishes.  The “Morganza to the Gulf of Mexico Hurricane Protection Project” could potentially defend 110,000 residents—or ninety percent of the coastal population—from hurricane disaster.[18] Yet citing cost, the sinking Isle de Jean Charles was excluded from levee plans (tellingly, Jerome Zeringue, Director of the Terrebonne Levee and Conservation District was quoted remarking, “For the cost [of including Isle de Jean Charles in the levee plan], you could buy the island and all the residents tenfold”).[19]  In light of the Army Corps of Engineers’ decision, and the apparent government sentiment supporting it, many Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaws convey a fundamental distrust of the federal government.[20]  “We’ve known for a long time that officials believe our land is not worth the expense of saving,” writes Chief of the island’s Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw, Albert Naquin, “[but] I ask you, how do you put a dollar value on a community and a culture?”[21]

As if the plunder for oil and its climate change-inducing consumption were not formidable enough opponents to Isle de Jean Charles and its tribe, British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon Spill (2010) wrecked the island’s fishing economy, and along with it, a culture of fishing and nutritional lifeline.  Even years following the spill, oyster plots are ruined, crab traps are soiled, and shrimp trawlers have been cut off.[22]  Though 2012 BP television advertisements invite tourists to return to Gulf shores, claiming “everything is fine” in Louisiana and elsewhere, “‘[t]he subsistence fishers who have inhabited Isle de Jean Charles since 1830 see things differently,’” laments Chief Naquin. “‘They’re not fine.  There are no oysters.  There are no shrimp.’”[23] “Negative health effects have begun to surface for those who worked in the cleanup efforts.  …[M]arine life are washing up dead on coastal shores.  […]  And our community,” writes Naquin, “has yet to see any compensation for our losses.”[24] To make matters worse, fishers and residents the Gulf Coast over are concerned that dispersants used to break down the 210 million gallons of leaked oil—chemicals like Corexit, used in untested, off-label quantities during Deepwater—could hurt fisheries for decades.[25] The Army Corps of Engineers, as well as Chief Naquin, have encouraged Isle de Jean Charles’ residents to locate twenty miles North to the mainland, but many refuse to evacuate their homes.[26]  Indeed, doing so would amount to abandoning a rich place-based culture.  Forsaken by the federal government—both via levee exclusion as well as denial of federal recognition for the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe[27]—and facing dwindling charity resources to buoy this storm-torn community, Isle de Jean Charles has been left to fend for itself.  With the island’s people and their cultural traditions in jeopardy, they will likely become the United States’ first climate refugees.[28]

Restoration in the Anthropocene

As resource-extraction, fossil fuel consumption, and intensifying climatic events continue apace around the world, the forty-year old field of ecological restoration continues to respond to degraded environments by compensating for ecologically damaging influences (usually pollution, development, or invasive species proliferation) and managing them toward self-sustenance and homeostasis. While “restore” commonly implies a return to an original, the term belies the essence of restoration, which does not aim to arrest change or recreate a replica of its historic past, as if an original ecology ever existed.[29]  In recognition that ecologies are always in flux, restorative processes like native plantings, prairie burnings, or invasive removals aim to redirect ecological systems—in order to set them in motion again—so that they act as they did before the novel introduction(s).[30]  In order to accomplish this, restorationists are typically guided by an observable or recorded “historical range of variability” (HRV), which helps them distinguish “normal” changes that have been observed to endure within dynamic ecosystems versus changes that exceed the system enough to embody a significant departure from past composition and function.[31]

Ironically, the field of ecological restoration is itself made vulnerable by climate change, a phenomenon it has long sought to mitigate and remediate.  Once based upon returning degraded environments to predisturbance states, climate change is destabilizing historic ecosystems at such unprecedented rates that history may no longer serve as an appropriate, ecologically-sensitive guide.[32] Indeed, significant anxiety exists in the field that the unprecedented shifts that characterize the Anthropocene could imply “the death of restoration.”[33] To avoid this outcome, I maintain that ER must evolve alongside the climate changed-ecologies it seeks to assist.  There is evidence that climate change has already affected virtually all ecosystems and taxonomic groups.[34]  Most systems are now, or will soon become, either hybrid—retaining some historical characteristics while presenting enough different species composition and function to exist outside the HRV[35]—or novel—completely differing in species composition and function.[36]

At Isle de Jean Charles, the always-interacting socio-environmental phenomena of salinization, flooding, sedimentation prevention, hurricanes, erosion, and pollution have undoubtedly ushered in both hybrid and novel ecological conditions.  To cite one poignant illustration of this, in a heartbreaking Global Oneness Project essay, writer Elizabeth Rush laments her porpoise sighting along the shores of Isle de Jean Charles: “For a second I find its pinkish fin thrilling, like spotting a whale on a sightseeing tour, but the thrill gives way to sadness and a thin wire of fear. Forty years ago it would have been unimaginable to find a big saltwater marine mammal so far inland.”

While controversial among today’s restorationists, for some remain attached to a “‘natural past’ model of restoration”[37] (which arguably illustrates their adherence to a preservationist, rather than environmental justice, nature paradigm), I agree with many progressives in the field that HRV is going to be an “increasingly poor prox[y]” for assessing ecological integrity.[38]  Going a step further, I argue that if our natures are under such an extreme amount of stress because of climate change that our time-worn restoration models may no longer be appropriate, we could harness these novel situations toward novel socio-ecological creations, making a space perform for as many human and nonhuman stakeholders as possible.  If the chief goal of ER truly remains to return a site to a state of functioning and not to a fabled origin, then I believe we have some room to expand the notion of what restoration might look like and accomplish in light of the rapid change global warming induces.  Furthermore, doing so could secure ER’s longevity and relevance in our climate changed-future.

Alongside the misfortune of climate change and the trauma of its losses, which beckon reflection, mourning, and humility in the face of humanity’s many ecological missteps, we might find moments of opportunity to ensure that the changes that do happen (to the field of restoration, and more importantly, to future life on Earth) are relatively desirable ones.  If reconceived, perhaps restoration could be pushed toward creative solutions wherein spaces are crafted in order to address a multitude of needs and engage diverse nonhuman and human stakeholders.  A justice-oriented restoration, attuned to the contextualized needs and relationships of human-nonhuman communities, guided by the wisdom of local professionals and laypersons, and aimed at fostering communities resilient enough to weather the socio-ecological shifts constitutive of climate change, could model the kind of environmentalism so desperately needed in the twenty-first century when cultural and ecological dilemmas are inescapably entwined.

Novel Ecosystems, Novel Restoration

A noteworthy attempt at an innovative, justice-oriented restoration project came September 22-24, 2011 on Isle de Jean Charles, when two hundred volunteer school children, tribe members, nonprofit workers, and corporate employees assisted Martin Ecosystems and the America’s WETLAND Foundation (AWF) in staking forty to sixty native marsh grasses each to 187 five-by-eight-foot floating trays.[39] These trays were secured end to end along 1,560 feet of the shoreline down the single road linking Isle de Jean Charles to the mainland. Entitled “Saving a Vanishing Culture,” Gerald Schouest, of Native American ancestry, initiated the experimental project that was largely funded by the Coastal Conservation Association and Shell Oil Company. Martin Ecosystems developed the unique restoration technique, which involves securing plant starts within a “Brillo pad-like” substance created, somewhat ironically, from the very material that imperils other stretches of ocean: plastic.[40] Named “BioHaven Floating Breakwater,” each tray consists of 460 recycled plastic bottles, which act as floating wetlands by reducing wave heights and energy, preventing erosion, filtering water, providing habitat, and adding landmass.  Within a year, the “Recycled Shoreline” successfully took root, established landmass, and collected enough sediment to protect the road from erosion, engendering a more resilient buffer zone from impending storms.[41]

Success is, of course, relative in this example.  As Schouest reminds us, “‘The floating islands alone won’t save the coast…But we need to use all the measures we can to stop our community from disappearing into the sea.”[42]  President of Martin Ecosystems, Nicole Waguespack, agrees: while the road is likely secured for the time being, the island itself is not, for there is not currently enough BioHaven product available to buffer an island-sized land mass.[43]

Still, the award-winning BioHaven restoration systems have demonstrated such promising results that nine other Gulf sites have implemented them, creating more than ten thousand square feet of shoreline.[44]  The Isle de Jean Charles site advanced to Phase Two development in April 2013, adding one thousand more feet of shore to the roadway[45] using an improved BioHaven product design based upon lessons learned after 2012’s Hurricane Isaac,[46] which the Phase One floating islands withstood rather well (only ten percent of the BioHaven trays were lost).[47]

Furthermore, Martin Ecosystems and the Terrebonne Parish Government have been testing how well the BioHavens will build land, unanchored, in open water.[48]  “‘If successful,’ said Nick Matherne, Director of Coastal Restoration and Preservation at Louisiana’s Department of Natural Resources, ‘the area around the islands will strengthen and flourish, and this could serve as a model for sustainable land mass.  The islands have already performed well protecting the South Lafourche levee.’”[49]  Some call this restoration technology “revolutionary,” because “[i]nstead of mimicking or replacing the natural process of water-cleansing, shore protection, and habitat enhancement, [the] Floating Islands actually stimulate and expedite the natural process.”[50]

Justice-Oriented Analysis

As a restoration effort in the Anthropocene, the floating islands are noteworthy for at least two reasons.  First, they illustrate how contemporary restoration should be employing traditional, HRV guidelines alongside innovative methods attuned to the presence—or advent of—hybrid and novel ecosystems.  At Isle de Jean Charles, a typical method of repopulating an area with natives was employed, for the grasses planted to the BioHavens continue to thrive in contemporary Gulf climes, and extant species of fish and animals continue to require native marsh habitat.  In addition, new methods and technologies were engaged, such as using the floating trays to reduce to wave energy, or manufacturing the trays from plastic, a material we desperately need to find similar ways to repurpose.  In these ways, the floating island project brilliantly confronts Anthropocene conditions as it targets a simultaneity of issues at once.

Furthermore, the utilization of the BioHaven product to protect vanishing shoreline while monitoring it in research studies, improving upon it in further phases, and testing it in new conditions (such as the open water floating islands that are expected to create brand new land mass), signals the kind of bold and innovative ecological interventions necessary for life amidst climate change.  These initiatives reflect two contemporary ER methods—adaptive management and managed relocation—progressive restorationists could utilize to enable vulnerable cultures and ecosystems to build more resilient homes, and/or transition to more livable locales.

Adaptive management is “a process of experimental design and implementation of management that occurs simultaneously and continuously so that the process of learning about a system happens while the system is being managed.” [51]  Notably, with adaptive management, human needs are addressed alongside nonhuman needs, which contributes yet another potential pathway for restoration conventionally conceived to incorporate social justice aims.  As restorationists like Allison are beginning to appreciate, “[l]arge environmental problems always have social dimensions and it is vital that human societies are included in the planning, management, monitoring and re-adjustment that occur during adaptive management.”[52]  Thus, even as the anchored floating islands are successfully shoring up Isle de Jean Charles’ road, unanchored islands are being tested for their efficacy in creating new land mass, in order to begin compensating for the 14,688 lost square miles of Louisiana coastline—and with it, entire cultures of people—at the hands of the oil industry and river levees.[53]

Though not a reality to be celebrated, climate change has initiated a need for species languishing or potentially threatened in climatically-inhospitable conditions to migrate in order to survive, and in light of this, certain progressive restorationists have begun assisting them through a process called managed relocation.  Also known as “assisted migration,”[54] it is a restorative strategy wherein humans consciously move at-risk species from a location where they currently exist to a location outside their HRV that is more likely to have better conditions for them in the future—usually poleward, protected, or elevated habitats.[55] Managed relocation is clearly an aggressive approach to restoration, and one that necessitates extreme caution in application, but even early attempts have proven promising in the short-term.[56].  In the tragic case that Isle de Jean Charles will not be saved, it is plausible that the BioHaven technology could be employed to relocate beloved species.  Plants used for their nutritional, aesthetic, spiritual, or crafting properties, for example, as well as some of the vertebrates that depend upon them, could join the relocated tribe in an ecologically viable locale.  At the very least, if “home” cannot be saved, perhaps there may be hope for some of “home’s remnants” to survive the Anthropocene.

A second noteworthy feature of the floating islands project is that it embodies an instructive example of what can be learned from a justice-oriented restoration attempt. From the beginning, the BioHaven islands were employed to assist an island community that, by Chief Naquin’s estimates, has been ignored at nearly every turn by the federal government.[57] According to Valsin Marmillion, Managing Director of AWF, “The BioHaven floating islands not only demonstrate innovative restoration technology that may withstand the novel demands of climate change; they are also ‘a demonstration…of caring…sending the message that we must rally and take action when the government turns its back on historic communities.’”[58]  From this perspective, it seems clear that the restoration firms and local government agencies involved in “Saving a Vanishing Culture” truly appreciate the words United Houma Nation Chief Thomas Dardar expressed at the Phase One volunteer event: “If all this [land] goes, then we go with it…the culture will die with it also.”[59]  Though classified as an environmental foundation, AWF demonstrates its recognition of nature-culture interdependencies when it adopted a “no net loss of culture” standard, calling on policy makers to ensure that coastal restoration includes maintaining rich native cultures.[60]  In other words, the most successful elements of this project reflect an environmental justice ideology.

At the same time, “Saving a Vanishing Culture” also beckons healthy skepticism about the extent to which the project faithfully embodies justice-oriented restoration. To begin, Shell Oil’s involvement with the project, through its financial contributions, volunteerism, and event promotionall of which contributed to its Environmental Protection Agency “First Place Gulf Guardian” Award in 2013[61]—could be interpreted as an attempt by a large corporation to mask its history of exploiting communities and environments with community-building public relations campaigns.  At no point during Phase One or Two of the project did Shell publicly recognize the 1.3 million acres of wetlands its oil development has demolished,[62] nor did Shell acknowledge that “Saving a Vanishing Culture” might be an attempt to offer reparations for its history of plundering communities like Isle de Jean Charles.  Instead, there exists a gaping disconnect between the recognition Shell has received helping to restore Isle de Jean Charles, and the reason Isle de Jean Charles so desperately needs restoration in the first place.

Another concern as to whether “Saving a Vanishing Culture” exemplifies justice-oriented restoration is the extent to which the project was truly initiated by the Isle de Jean Charles community, and for the community.  I maintain that restorationists’ expertise must be put into conversation with the knowledge and needs of other local human stakeholders who depend upon a specific ecological community for recreation, livelihood, food, clean water, hunting, resource extraction, shelter, aesthetic appeal, carbon sinks, or protection from natural disasters.  Because climate change disproportionately affects marginalized races, nationalities, genders, and classes of people, natures must be restored with the consent, participation, and design of those so affected.  This is not only because local stakeholders are directly affected, but also because local stakeholders likely have place-based knowledge that outsiders lack.

While it is not necessarily the case that the floating islands project is an example of culturally ignorant environmentalists barging into a community and imposing their belief systems, the involvement of Isle de Jean Charles residents is unclear.  By one report, Chief Naquin was open to the idea [63] and another said he “liked the rebuilding project.”[64]  Still, Naquin questioned the placement of the floating islands, reckoning that their current location “would do little to stop the surge coming from the south,” and concluded, likely because decisions such as these were made without consulting Isle de Jean Charles residents, that the floating islands “‘serve[] no purpose at all for the island people.’”[65]  Furthermore, Naquin remains skeptical about environmentalists’ involvement in the restoration project, because of his experience seeing Native Americans exploited when “‘[environmentalist groups] get money to help the Indians survive.’”[66]  Indeed, the willingness of environmental organizations in this project to partner with Shell could be interpreted as another example of social injustice exacerbated by environmentalism as much as environmental organizations’ pragmatic acceptance of the necessary funds to implement the project.

United Houma Nation Chief Thomas Dardar, Jr. offers a different perspective:

“If you are building land, how can that be negative?”  Dardar said if the floating islands are able to help generate land and vegetation as designed, more additions could be added in a couple of years to what was built on that day and eventually expanded around the island. “This is beautiful,” he said. “We got a whole lot of people here and this is not [just] a study. That’s the big thing because a lot of these projects are studied to death. This thing right here is dirt being turned over, hands on, young people involved, companies involved, and this is good for the community, good for our spirits and good for our culture. It is a beginning. I am impressed.”[67]

What this debate between two chiefs in the Terrebone Parish highlights is the importance of local stakeholder involvement—which will usually involve contestations and negotiations—in designing democratic solutions to environmental ills. Without localized debate, leadership, and design it remains debatable whether “Saving a Vanishing Culture” is emblematic of justice-oriented restoration.

A “Trigger Event”

In Chief Dardar’s words, “a beginning” might be the best way to gauge whether “Saving a Vanishing Culture” is an effective enough approach to “save” the sinking island and its people, let alone qualify as justice-oriented restoration.  Even with the necessary funds and materials to wage a large-scale BioHaven project around the island, ER alone will not be enough to rescue the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw’s island culture, and that is because the tribe requires, and deserves, levee inclusion and federal tribal recognition funds.  ER can help restore a healthier ecology for trapping and fishing, but a large-scale, federal cleanup and compensation from BP for lost fishing revenue is needed.  ER can establish more resilient buffer zones along the coast to help Isle de Jean Charles weather future hurricanes, but strident national and international climate policy efforts are required to lessen the frequency and intensity of those storms, and federal tribal recognition is required to ensure that the island’s people have the resources they need to rebuild when storms hit.  ER can help island residents meet the changing demands of the climate by rebuilding some lost ecologies they depend upon, while inspiring innovative restoration technologies and methods that encourage humankind to proactively design more desirable ecological communities rather than remaining completely vulnerable to the whims of climate change.  Yet both at Isle de Jean Charles and beyond, ER must be utilized alongside major conservation programs, social and economic justice initiatives (reparations among them), and renewable, sustainable energy development and incentives.  Finally, ER must, in most cases, involve the human stakeholders of restoration sites.  AWF project manager Buddy Boe perhaps encapsulated the role of ER on Isle de Jean Charles best when he said,

“Will this project alone protect the Island? Absolutely not. Will this project help…rebuild the land that the members of that community have used for generations? Yes. Is it creating awareness? Absolutely. [] There are trigger events that have to occur to make people aware of what has become an American tragedy. Our goal is not to turn back the clock but tap into a cultural asset. This is just a small part of where we are showing marshlands can be saved and land saved before it is lost forever. It is part of a process.”[68]

Indeed, the floating islands project could “trigger” several possibilities for Isle de Jean Charles, the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaws, ER, and environmentalism as a whole.  For the island and its peoples, attention engendered by the project and its several corporate, nonprofit, and government sponsors, could lead to further restoration of the island, increased donations to help residents rebuild infrastructure when storms hit, and hopefully, attention and funding at the federal level to protect this historic community and ensure it has the resources it needs to contend with the challenges it faces due to climate change.

For the field of ER, the floating islands project illustrates the potential of justice-oriented initiatives, especially amidst hybrid and novel ecosystems, which go beyond merely assuring restoration’s relevancy in the Anthropocene.  Indeed, restorationists could use their expertise to lead the way in advocating for vulnerable cultures that will perish alongside vulnerable ecologies.  Further, they could work together with vulnerable communities to design ecosystems robust enough to withstand climate change—ecosystems of higher diversity and increased resiliency, which may even foster new environmental relationships and values.[69]

With regard to environmentalism in general, this case study, as well as lessons to be learned from justice-oriented restoration, could help environmentalists wade through the ironies and complexities of twenty-first century socio-ecological dilemmas, when, for example, the oil that inspired the plunder of Isle de Jean Charles, devastated its waters with Deepwater, and provides the material for the plastics whose production pollutes the air and consumption pollutes the oceans, also provides an industry that employs some forty thousand Louisiana residents and a material that is now being used to restore sensitive marshland on Louisiana’s eroding shorelines.[70]

Because of these contradictions, environmentalists of all stripes will have to work harder than ever to distinguish promising from detrimental partners, utilize resources previously ignored, respond to the needs of affected communities, and work to repair environmentalism’s trustworthiness through anti-colonial endeavors, especially among those communities it has sometimes unwittingly, other times knowingly, neglected and/or exploited in the name of a sanitized vision of an original Edenic nature “untainted” by humankind.

In the Anthropocene, there is no clean slate with which to begin; colonial and racist injustices have given rise to neocolonial injustices that climate change exacerbates.  In these times, we must ask, what lessons have we inherited, and what skills can we hone, from our participation in both Earth-destroying, and Earth-regenerating, activities?  With increasingly fewer opportunities to employ history to “turn back the clock,” which values and ecologies we choose to restore, and how we choose to restore them, will make all the difference in how environmentalism will not only be sustained, but also help secure the resiliency, first and foremost, of those unduly affected by climate change.  If we are to create an ecologically viable world for as many humans and nonhumans as possible, then justice-oriented restoration should be one of our valued responses to climate change.


As this article was going through peer review in January of 2016, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe $52 million for resettlement purposes.  The funding news has been “met with a mixture of appreciation and apprehension” for a tribe that has twice rejected resettlement plans.[71] But at a point in time when just one more hurricane could wash Isle de Jean Charles away forever, more are resigning themselves to the idea.[72] Should the tribe elect to relocate, it will be the nation’s first climate change resettlement community.

An opportunity lies in this moment to witness either justice-oriented restoration at work, or a continued pattern of neocolonial placation and patronization.  If the tribe is delivered HUD funds as promised—for tribal members remain skeptical and untrusting of the government that originally left them out of levee protection plans and denied them federal tribal status—of key importance will be who directs resettlement plans and development.  Reports claim that the new community will be about thirty miles inland, north of Houma, and built with housing and land use sustainability in mind.[73] But as this study has argued, true environmental sustainability necessitates social justice, and social justice demands stakeholder leadership and participation.

An opportunity for ecological restoration, conceived to confront novel Anthropocene conditions, also presents itself in this historical moment.  Restoring a semblance of home for this diasporic tribe has been cited as a main goal for the resettlement project.[74] Managed relocation is a restoration technique already being considered, as Lauren Zanolli reports in The Guardian: “tribal leaders are making plans to bring as much of the island with them as possible. They have begun to collect seeds and plant cuttings, and are interviewing older community members about what life was like when the island was fully populated.”[75] Because the community recognizes how crucial native plants and fauna have been to Isle de Jean Charles, efforts to repopulate their new home are motivated as much by a desire to restore cultural heritage (and to protect that heritage by using native plants as bulwarks against future erosion and flooding) as it is to restore habitats for island species they expect to move north with the climate-changed coastline.

Much remains to be seen from what transpires of this historic “test case” of climate refugeeism.  Isle de Jean Charles’ Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw, a people so familiar with the natural-cultural consequences of injustice, may prove to be among our most valued eductors on an unpredictable and hostile planet, if given the respect and resources they deserve.  Indeed, that appears to be their intention: “‘We’re trying to replace what’s been lost,’” reports Tribal Executive Secretary Chantel Comardelle. “‘And we’re trying to pave the way so other communities can have a smoother ride.’”[76]


1. Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind. (New Haven: Yale UP, 1967). [↑]

2. Alfred W. Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe 900-1900, (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2004). [↑]

3. Giovanna Di Chiro, “Nature as Community: The Convergence of Environmental and Social Justice,” in Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature, ed. William Cronon.  (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1995), 300-301. [↑]

4. Nicholas Mirzoeff. “It’s Not the Anthropocene, It’s the White Supremacy Scene, or, the Geological Color Line,” in After Extinction, ed. Richard Grusin. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 3. [↑]

5. ibid. [↑]

6. ibid, 2. [↑]

7. ibid, 6. [↑]

8. Stuart Allison, Ecological Restoration and Environmental Change: Renewing Damaged Ecosystems, (New York, NY: Routledge, 2012), 215. [↑]

9. Elizabeth Rush. [No date]. “The Skeleton of the Isle de Jean Charles.”[↑]

10. Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana.[↑]

11. Rush. [↑]

12. Isle. [↑]

13. Kristen Psaki, 2011.  “First U.S. Climate Refugees.”  Huffington Post, April, 4.[↑]

14. Darren Simon.  2008. “Tribal Chief on Isle de Jean Charles Says It’s Time to Leave.”[↑]

15. Psaki. [↑]

16. This fact is consistent with other Southeast Louisiana regions.  According to Psaki, “Every half hour, a piece of land the size of a football field slips into the Gulf of Mexico. Oil companies have dug 10,000 miles of canals through Louisiana’s coast causing widespread saltwater erosion.” Coastal erosion is only expected to worsen with climate change (Woodruff 2009). [↑]

17. Rebecca Marshall Ferris, Director, Can’t Stop the Water, 2014. [↑]

18. Marisa Katz.  2003. “Recognition of Isle De Jean Charles as a Native American Tribe.”  Race, Racism and the Law: Speaking Truth to Power![↑]

19. Dan Barry, 2006. “In Louisiana, a Sinking Island Wars with Water and the Government.” The New York Times, June 19. [↑]

20. ibid. [↑]

21. ibid) [↑]

22. Gordon Stewart. 2013. “Deepwater Horizon, Three Years Later.” IsleDeJeanCharles.Com, June 10.[↑]

23. ibid. [↑]

24. Albert Naquin. 2012. “Two Years Later, a Letter from Chief Naquin.” IsleDeJeanCharles.Com, April 19.[↑]

25. Nikolas Kozlof, 2010. “Oil and Cultural Genocide: From the Amazon to the Gulf.” Huffington Post July 26.[↑]

26. Simon. [↑]

27. “Being a non-federally recognized tribe,” as the Isle de Jean Charles website reports, “we do not have the same financial and logical support most tribes enjoy.”  After years of rejected attempts to secure federal tribal recognition, which would allow federal aid to the community to preserve tribal culture in the events of natural disasters such as hurricanes, or human-made disasters such as oil spills (in addition to other educational and economic boosts), another appeal was made to the Bureau of Indian Affairs in August of 2014, following the successful recognition of neighboring Houma Nation.  It is still pending.

Federal recognition can be difficult to secure as tribes have to prove a continuity of governance and community from first contact with non-Native peoples—which could have occurred centuries ago—until the present (LeBlanc 2014).  Under the new rules being considered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, tribes would only have to prove continuity since 1934 (ibid).

It is important to recognize the ways in which this appeal restricts efforts to rebuild, protect, and progress Isle de Jean Charles.  For example, Chief Naquin has considered suing the federal government for excluding his community from the Morganza levee plans, but worried about how that would impact his tribe’s pending application for federal recognition (Sturgis 2009).  With federal recognition, the U.S. would be obliged to ensure the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw’s right to self-determination and autonomy on Isle de Jean Charles (Katz). [↑]

28. Psaki; Isle; Sue Sturgis. 2009. “As the land disappears, an Indian tribe plans to abandon its ancestral Louisiana Home.” Facing South.  Sturgis rightfully argues that by United Nations principles, the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe on Isle de Jean Charles qualifies as an “internally displaced” community.  The U.S. endorsed the UN “Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement,” which “govern the treatment of people uprooted by natural and man-made disasters.”  Principle 9 is especially relevant: “States are under a particular obligation to protect against the displacement of indigenous peoples, minorities, peasants, pastoralists and other groups with a special dependency on and attachment to their lands” (UN). [↑]

29. William Jordan, The Sunflower Forest: Ecological Restoration and the New Communion with Nature (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003), 24. [↑]

30. ibid, 21-22. [↑]

31. Allison, 90. [↑]

32. For example, entire ecosystems may need to be shifted north one hundred kilometers—or further—in order to resume behaving as they once did. Park and agriculture boundaries may need to be redrawn with the intention of expanding North-South corridors to accommodate species’ responses to temperature shifts.  Phenology reports already confirm that an average of forty-one percent of documented species exhibited changes consistent with climate change: pollinator flight activity and spring flowering, for example, are occurring four days earlier per 1°C increase in temperature (this statistic was drawn from a study of 1,598 species with good long-term records of phenology) (Allison, 79-80).  Keystone species may become extinct, threatening to collapse entire ecosystems. The rapid introduction of nonnative and invasive species—a consequence of both globalization and climate change—may prove impossible to eradicate or control, thus requiring new strategies of mitigation and integration. Energy and food resources depleted in one locale may need to be harvested for the first time in other locales.  The global demand for carbon sinks may invigorate forestry protection and preservation in certain areas of the globe, yet displace the families and industries who have relied upon, and sustained, those forests for centuries.  And as Sandler (2012) reminds us, the ecological impacts of global warming will be geographically differential—greater in some places than in others—and not necessarily predictable (72).  See Allison (2012) and Hobbs et al. (2013) for further commentary. [↑]

33. Andrew Light, “The Death of Restoration?” in Ethical Adaptation to Climate Change: Human Virtues of the Future, eds. Allen Thompson and Jeremy Bendik-Keymer (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012), 107. [↑]

34. Allison, 80, 91. [↑]

35. ibid,100. [↑]

36. ibid, 91. [↑]

37. Susan Power Bratton, “Alternative Models of Ecosystem Restoration,” in Environmental Restoration: Ethics, Theory, and Practice, ed. William Throop (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 2000), 66. [↑]

38. Ronald Sandler. “Global Warming and Virtues of Ecological Restoration,” in Ethical Adaptation to Climate Change: Human Virtues of the Future, eds. Allen Thompson and Jeremy Bendik-Keymer (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012), 72. [↑]

39. According to President of Martin Ecosystems Nicole Waguespack, whom I interviewed on January 6, 2015, financial and volunteer partners included the America’s WETLAND Foundation, The Coastal Conservation Association, Shell Oil company, the Terrebone Parish Coastal Management Office, Entergy, and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. [↑]

40. Penny Font.  2014. “Evolution of an Idea.” MartinEcosystems.Com, July 20.  [↑]

41. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 2013. “Shell Exploration and Production Company Receives First Place Gulf Guardian Award in the Environmental Justice/Cultural Diversity Category.”; America’s WETLAND Foundation (AWF).  2011. “America’s WETLAND volunteers plant ‘floating islands.’”[↑]

43. Nicole Waguespack, Phone Interview. January 6, 2015. [↑]

44. Martin Ecosystems. 2014. “Description and Synopsis: Isle de Jean Charles Floating Island Project.”; AWF; Shell. [↑]

45. To implement Phase Two of the project, one hundred Terrebonne Parish school children volunteered their time.  “The project was spearheaded by the Coastal Conservation Association’s Building Conservation Habitat Program and its partners: Shell Oil Company, Keep Terrebonne Beautiful, Martin Ecosystems, Terrebonne Parish Government, Terrebonne Parish Schools and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries” (CCA 2013, “Terrebonne”). [↑]

46. Improvements cited by Martin Ecosystems on the new BioHaven trays included: larger sizes; no cable-connection (for added strength); a more robust anchor that can be screwed deeper into the ground (“anchors have a pull strength of approximately 16,000 pounds”); and their installation left 5-foot gaps between trays, allowing for water to move between trays “while providing maximal wave attenuation” (“Description”). [↑]

47. Martin Ecosystems. 2014. “Description and Synopsis: Isle de Jean Charles Floating Island Project.” [↑]

48. AWF. [↑]

49. ibid. [↑]

50. Martin Ecosystems. 2014. “Our News.”[↑]

51. Allison,107. [↑]

52. ibid, 108. [↑]

53. Greg Palast. 2014. “Crime Scene: New Orleans.”, August 27.[↑]

54. Allison, 110. [↑]

55. Allison, 110; Brian M. Starzomski, “Novel Ecosystems and Climate Change,” in Novel Ecosystems: Intervening in the New Ecological World Order, eds. Richard J. Hobbs, Eric S. Higgs, and Carol M. Hall (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Blackwell, 2013), 93.  Essentially responding to novel or hybrid ecosystems by creating desirable ecosystems, there may be different reasons for attempting managed relation: first, and more typically, managed relocation may promote species dispersal and survival, especially those with poor dispersal abilities, “with the assumption that if we build the proper ecosystem, the more mobile species will come afterwards” (Allison, 110).  Another reason may be to avoid ecological surprises brought on by climate change, or alternatively, to design the ecosystems we predict will be present in the future (Starzomski, 93). [↑]

56.  As Allison discusses, “[Managed relocation] is already being used in some situations such as establishing individuals of the rare conifer Torreya toxifolia in North Carolina, far from their current home in Florida, and the establishment of several new colonist populations of about a dozen species of trees in British Columbia in areas outside of their distributional limits” (111). [↑]

57. Naquin. [↑]

58. AWF. [↑]

59. Martin Ecosystems. 2014. Isle de Jean Charles Floating Island Project—EPA/Gulf Guardian Award, 2014.[↑]

60. AWF. [↑]

61. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 2013. “Gulf of Mexico Program: Gulf Guardian Awards.”[↑]

62. Palast. According to Palast, who investigated Louisiana State records, Conoco is responsible for removing 3.3 million acres of Louisiana wetland; Exxon Mobil is responsible for 2.1 million acres; Chevron is responsible for 2.7 million acres; and Shell is responsible for 1.3 million acres.  He writes, “That’s 14,688 square miles drowned into the Gulf of Mexico.” [↑]

63. Cain Burdeau, 2011.  “Indians get a new road, new ‘islands.’” Native American Times, September 26.[↑]

64. Mike Nixon, 2011. “Island’s land loss fix takes root” Houma Times September 29.[↑]

65. ibid. [↑]

66. ibid. [↑]

67. ibid. [↑]

68. ibid. [↑]

69. Andrew Light, Allen Thompson, and Eric S. Higgs, “Valuing Novel Ecosystems,” in Novel Ecosystems: Intervening in the New Ecological World Order, eds. Richard J. Hobbs, Eric S. Higgs, and Carol M. Hall (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Blackwell, 2013), 258-259. [↑]

70. Lori Ann LaRocco, 2011. “How Many Jobs Does Gulf Drilling Really Employ?  Fact Versus Fiction.”  CNBC.com10, February.[↑]

71. Lauren Zanolli. 2016. “Louisiana’s vanishing island: the climate ‘refugees’ resettling for $52m.” The Guardian, March 15. [↑]

72. ibid. [↑]

73. ibid. [↑]

74. ibid. [↑]

75. ibid. [↑]

76. ibid. [↑]


Dr. Michelle Garvey is a Teaching Specialist in Gender, Women, & Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota. Her research considers which kinds of natural-cultural communities should be created in response to climate change, so that they may effectively confront social injustice and environmental degradation. Dr. Garvey is a climate justice activist and volunteer ecological restorationist.
All posts by: Michelle Garvey | Email | Website

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