Conversations on environmental restorative justice (Part I)

During September-November 2022, I taught a course on environmental restorative justice at the Vermont Law and Graduate school. As a final project, I asked my students to hold a conversation with one of the scholars whose work they found inspiring or compelling during the course. Some wonderful conversations have been born as a result. Here features a conversation between Suzanne DeBuhr and Ben Almassi. Besides being my student, Suzanne DeBuhr is the director of restorative practices at Milton Academy, a K-12 independent school outside of Boston. Ben Almassi, Ph.D., is professor of philosophy at Governors State University in Chicago’s Southland
and authors of several important works we discussed in the course, among which also the book Reparative Environmental Justice in a World of Wounds.

SD: Thank you so much for agreeing to speak with me. In the class, Environmental Restorative Justice, Professor Brunilda Pali has introduced us to many thinkers in the field, through The Palgrave Handbook of Environmental Restorative Justice, of which she is one of the editors, as well as other resources. Your article, Climate reparations, compensation, and intergenerational restorative justice sparked my interest, especially concerning the intersection between environmental justice and social justice, particularly through what you name as “social-epistemic repair.”

BA: One of the things that’s really cool about where the field is in these last couple of years is it is really interdisciplinary. This emphasis on environmental considerations pulls an even more diverse group of folks together.

SD: I would love to hear more about your academic background and what has led you to this work?

BA: I’m a philosopher. I came into philosophy from philosophy of science, an area of philosophy that’s called epistemology, which asks the question “what do we know?” I’m especially interested in an area that has grown in the last twenty to thirty years called social epistemology. From that, I became really interested in trust and the role trust plays in collaboration and knowledge-making. For me, the interest in trust – how do we lose it, how do we rebuild it – animates a lot of what I’m interested in. Also, because I care about social epistemology, I’m often thinking about how we’re differently situated, how our different social locations affect what we are likely to know, not in a solipsistic way, because we can collaborate and work together to build better knowledge structures.

SD: The topic of trust is fascinating for me. I’ve been working at Milton Academy for 17 years, and recently, the school decided to focus on restorative justice and how to implement it into school life, wholescale, which is my new role. I have been thinking and talking about how our school community needs to think about trust, because we are lacking it. Perhaps that is a conversation for another time, since our conversation is meant to be about the environment.

What struck me in your article is the connection you make between both restorative justice in responding to environmental harm, and also in its intergenerational forms, and how that connects to social justice responses. I’d love to hear more about how you see those connections.

BA: To put my cards on the table, I’m trained in philosophy. Even though I am excited to work with folks that come from other methodological approaches, it is my presumption. What animates me about environmental restorative justice is relational repair and thinking about ourselves as in relation to lots of different kinds of creatures and entities. Some of those are definitely humans, absolutely. Our human relationships do not drop out of the picture just because we’re having an environmental conversation.

I don’t know if you’ve ever read a book by Robin Kimmerer called Braiding Sweetgrass? It’s a lovely book. Kimmerer is a biologist and a member of the Anishinaabe tribe. One of the things she’s working on is how to better integrate traditional ecological knowledge and scientific ecological knowledge. Since she draws deeply upon both, she’s putting this into practice in her own work. Among other people, like Aldo Leopold in the American environmental movement, there are folks interested in thinking about ourselves as in community with other-than-human creatures and how those relationships are relevant to our relationships with other people. Of course, because we’re talking about justice and we’re talking about the aftermath of injustice, part of what’s going on is that certain people’s relationships have been dismissed and degraded, and their knowledge has been dismissed and degraded, especially if we’re talking about traditional ecological knowledge. So, if we think about the need for epistemic repair, we need to acknowledge that Western scientists, Western capitalists, Western governments have a deep history of disregarding and distorting Indigenous knowledge. For those of us who come from a Western perspective, when we can finally recognize value in Indigenous knowledge, we cannot just appropriate it and take it off the shelf, right? We need to engage in the work of relational repair. We need to actually demonstrate ourselves to be trustworthy collaborators.

There’s a philosopher at Michigan State, his name is Kyle White, and he works in an Indigenous philosophical perspective. He makes this point that you can dismiss the value of somebody’s knowledge altogether, which is a terrible injustice in itself. Eventually, you get to the point where you think “I’m happy to use your knowledge for whatever my ends are,” but that’s a far cry from recognizing people’s governance and sovereignty and recognizing that this knowledge isn’t just a useful addition to my projects; it has a deep role in environmental governance for peoples who have lived in relation to land for a long time. So, for me, that’s why I think the relational repair between different human communities is absolutely crucial for us to repair our relationships to non-human communities. If we’re going to do ecological restoration projects in a better way, they need to be grounded in both scientific and traditional ecological knowledge, which means that we have to be able to trust each other so that we can actually collaborate.

SD: Where do you see the starting point? Are there multiple starting points? Is the starting point with the relationships? Is it with non-Indigenous folks, asking in a humble way, if Indigenous communities will partner with them? Or is it starting with the environment and inviting people into that conversation? Or both? Or more things than I can imagine?

BA: I’m inclined to agree that there are multiple starting points. Maybe if it was as simple as there was one deep and clear way in which we wronged each other, we could just focus on that, but because we have wronged each other in so many ways and we continue to do so, I don’t know that we can put it in a strict order. Also, maybe this is more positive, if you’re not ready to collaborate with me because you don’t believe me and I haven’t demonstrated myself to be trustworthy, that’s understandable. But maybe you will be ready to collaborate with me later if I continue to do reparative work that demonstrates me to be trustworthy. You believe my apology and take me to be sincere in my acknowledgement of wrongdoing. That’s another reason why we should come at this from multiple different angles because some of our relationships are so wounded that we just cannot work on them right now; if we try to, that’s disrespectful to the victims who say I’m not ready to enter into a relationship with you. We shouldn’t just wait around either. One, because there is a lot of other work to do, but two, because that may be part of how we demonstrate ourselves to be trustworthy. Does that make sense?

SD: Yes, that totally makes sense. One aspect of the readings of the class – I don’t know why I’ve been surprised by it, I shouldn’t be – was how many people write about how connected the environmental response is to a societal social justice response. I was thinking that we’re talking about trees and animals, not necessarily talking about communities that have been marginalized over time, but actually, we’re always talking about all of it together. Communities need to breathe the air and drink the water. Even though much of the injustice in society and against marginalized groups happens in urban environments, it’s not like there isn’t air and water that they need, too.

Attending to the environment and talking about harm to the environment offers an interesting and even clever starting point, because you must address relationships in those conversations, but the focus is not necessarily on the thing that you are living with, let’s say racism or sexism, every day and feeling harmed by. People are coming together to focus on something that they both feel strongly about.

BA: I think that is really insightful. Just to make an analogy with a small scale interpersonal wronging, sometimes we have to take baby steps in terms of how we are going to start living together again. That’s not a substitute for having the tough conversations but maybe we have to do some of that first; maybe we make dinner together or we listen to music together.

As you were talking, I was thinking about an example, what I think is a pretty cool project, a little bit closer to home for me, but since you are a Midwesterner, you might be interested. In Western Michigan, along Lake Michigan, there’s a sturgeon restoration project for the lake sturgeon, the nmé. The project is led by Indigenous groups, but they are intentionally doing it with the non-Indigenous peoples who live in their communities geographically – mostly white folks but other folks of color who live there as well. Because it’s around this thing that people care about for some of the same reasons and some different reasons – fishing, having a positive enriching experience in the water, at the water, on rivers and streams – people can come together more easily. The idea is that in restoring the fish, not only does it restore the relationships between these different human groups, who are now working together to restore the fish, but it also restores their relationships to the fish. I think that’s a pretty cool example of something that’s been happening over the last ten years or so in the Midwest.

SD: Have you been a part of it at all?

BA: No, I haven’t, but that’s a good question.

SD: Have you been part of any practices that lead to epistemic repair?

BA: That’s a great question and certainly something that I hold myself to, but I’m a work in progress.

SD: Aren’t we all?

BA: In my home discipline of philosophy, there’s a lot of epistemic injustice that we need to work on, so the things I have been working on most in practice are around epistemic repair within philosophy around issues of gender and the origins of knowledge. Philosophy has a long way to go on that topic. You probably know that philosophy is still a very white and very male discipline, especially compared to some of the other humanities. We’re working on that, but that work has to be a reparative process.

Closer to home, geographically, I do participate in prairie restoration projects, but the prairie restoration projects I work on tend to be organized by the forest preserves, which are less deliberately cross-cultural. I cannot say that I have contributed to ecological restoration as epistemic repair just yet, not in the ways I was talking about in Michigan, which is a great example of people repairing the environment and repairing human relationships. There’s an epistemic dimension as well, because part of what you learn when you do the work is how much these other people, whom maybe you don’t know so well, actually do know about the subject, about the fish. Of course, the point is not just restoring the fish, but all the other elements of the rivers, the streams and the lakes that are in relation to the fish.

SD: You and I both live in a realm where knowledge is what you get at school or with a degree or the things you read and, in this case, regardless of the backgrounds of any of the people involved, the experts aren’t necessarily the ones with degrees. Their way of knowing is very different than what we have been taught knowing is about.

BA: Honestly, as a teacher, that’s really exciting. Because I have the chance to meet college students early in the process, when I teach a first year seminar. That’s a real opportunity to invite students to think how much they know that’s not necessarily coming out of a book. And that they don’t have to disregard their other sources of knowledge just because they’re taking academic knowledge seriously.

One of the things we haven’t talked too much about is the cross-generational future relationship stuff, and that gets really thorny really quick. How do we repair our epistemic relationship with future peoples? I think that’s a real challenge.

SD: There are a couple parts of your paper where I lost the train. I read Parfit, so I know a little bit about his philosophy. The part where certain conditions are such that you cannot predict who the future people are…

BA: Yes, we call that the non-identity problem. In some ways, in having this discussion, you have to get into the weeds with that.

SD: Is the argument that because we cannot know who the future people are or because they are dependent on certain circumstances that may not have been otherwise, is this an argument to let go of responsibility?

BA: When we frame the discussion of intergenerational justice around harm narrowly construed, we get ourselves embroiled in those metaphysical puzzles. Parfit is going to ask us: to what extent can we say that these future people really are worse off? Especially if you think about things like climate change, the effects they have on human migration is so vast that there is some truth to the idea that different people will come to be because of climate change than would have come to be without it. If you are really hung up on framing justice narrowly in terms of harm, then you do have to answer questions like, in what sense are they worse off? Their lives are going to be worse than ours are and they’re going to be worse than human lives would be if we hadn’t created so much climate injustice. When you start to individuate these different future persons, you get into these non-identity problems. Whereas what I am trying to argue is that if we allow ourselves to think about this more relationally, that we have relationships to future generations, we can make sense of our obligations to them in a way that is more expansive than harm narrowly construed.

SD: I think your example of the future class made a lot of sense. I don’t know who my students are going to be next term, but I can construct a class with them in mind, even though I don’t know exactly who they’re going to be.

BA: Absolutely, and as you work on bringing restorative justice practices into Milton Academy, you’re asking yourself similar questions, without necessarily knowing which students are going to be a part of the work and in which capacities.

When you do know who they are, you take that knowledge into consideration. When you’re making plans for the future, you’re still able to make some headway, because you think about it at the group level, about the future students, and it’s okay that you don’t know who they’re going to be. That also means we have to be really humble, aware that our knowledge about what their situation is, is pretty limited, because of the generational difference.

SD: You know, it’s funny when I think back to when I started teaching, which is now two decades ago, and where I am now, it’s very different between 2020 and 2005.

BA: Yeah, definitely. Yeah. And of course, I’m different than who I was in 2005.

SD: So, you must know one of my favorite philosophers Heraclitus.

BA: Oh, awesome. Okay. I like Heraclitus. Tell me what you like about Heraclitus.

SD: You can never step in the same river twice. Because the river is not the same river, and you are not the same you.

BA: That’s true. Not only is it not the same river, but it’s not even the same you. I’m glad you made that point.

SD: For me, with my background in religious studies, these ideas connect to Zen Buddhism, which is premised on an understanding that the world is impermanent and constantly changing, as well as interconnected and interdependent. Given this philosophy, I was thinking about how climate justice or environmental justice links up with other social justice movements or epistemic repair. Because it’s never just you in relationship to anything anyway – you are yourself a metaphor for all the relationships that create who you are.

BA: Yeah, right. The you who’s going to be stepping in the river again, the river of climate mitigation, is a different you. That’s a great point. You know, sometimes, especially in academia, because we give ourselves license to have these big discussions, we talk as if the governments are going to listen to us or as though we are advisors at a high level, and some people are, of course. Oftentimes, we get ourselves in this trap of thinking that we’re advisors to power without thinking that if any of these massive, mitigating or ameliorative projects are going to happen, they’re either going to need to happen against the will of peoples around the world, or those peoples need to be able to trust in these massive projects that are being proposed. If it’s the latter, and I think it should be the latter, then we have so much work to do to make those projects trustworthy, especially because they’re so breathless in how vast they are in their suggestions about what we should do. That’s another reason why I think that epistemic repairs is so important, because we’re just going to commit secondary injustice if we impose these massive climate solutions on all the peoples of the world without their input or consent.

SD: I’m wondering, this is a little off the environment, but what are some of the things you are doing in class to address the epistemic injustices in the field of philosophy?

BA: That’s a great question. I think that it’s always good to remember that just because you and I haven’t been hearing voices, that doesn’t mean that those voices weren’t speaking. Part of it is that people haven’t been enabled to do philosophy. Another huge part of it is that people have been doing philosophy, but it hasn’t been recognized. I actually think it’s pretty exciting that, if I’m willing to do the work, I can bring in and share with my students incredible ideas and perspectives that have already been expressed and are being expressed, but my teachers didn’t know about them, and my past self didn’t know about them. That’s the sort of thing that I find really invigorating, to try to be more alive to what’s already been done. And then of course, there’s also the question of, and this is a big part of epistemic justice, it’s not just who you hear, but how you hear them. Do you really understand them? Or do you misinterpret them because of what you presume these people are or you presume that they’re using concepts in the way that you do because you presume your concepts are hegemonic. And so that’s another really exciting challenge – to reread things, and re-listen to things that you thought you understood the first time – things that you were dismissive of, and ask, “why was I so dismissive?” And it’s exciting to walk one’s students through that same process, to ask them to go through that process of asking themselves why they were dismissive towards certain perspectives or certain ideas? And why have people been dismissive towards their own? Why have you been dismissive towards your own wisdom? That can be really exciting.

SD: And that’s restorative justice too.

BA: Yes, healing your relationship to yourself. That’s a great point, that is restorative justice.

SD: I have one final question, and I will let you interpret it however you want. What does a win look like for you, either one that you’ve experienced, or one that you are hopeful for?

BA: Well, that is a really good question. I’m cognizant of my positionality when I answer this question. I often presumptively identify with the perpetrator who thinks they’re contrite, and maybe genuinely is contrite, as opposed to a bystander or a victim. With that in mind, for me, a win is when we are able to collaborate on a project that we weren’t able to collaborate on before. It’s great for both of us, it’s reciprocal. I think that’s a real win. It might be that the benefits are emotional and psychological. It might be that the benefits are quite material, the air is cleaner for all of us. That feels like a real win. I’m also aware that restorative justice is not the same as reconciliation, because we can reconcile too soon, and we can push people to reconcile before they’re ready, and sometimes restorative justice means acknowledging and accepting that reconciliation isn’t the right approach. Even though I do like the idea of collaboration as a win, I’m trying to be reflective about the fact that sometimes we ought not collaborate, that I haven’t shown myself to be trustworthy enough for you. You have other projects that you need to prioritize and those don’t involve collaborating with me, and that can be good, too.

SD: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak to me.

BA: My pleasure, it was great to talk with you.