Earth Restorative Justice
Restorative approaches to environmental harms

Positive Green Criminology, or: how can we become ecologically awake system changers?


It’s heartening and inspiring to see the legal innovations that lawyers have come up with in response to the biodiversity and climate crises, particularly their use of the legal notion of a duty of care to force governments into climate action such as in the Dutch Urgenda climate-case, to advocate for the criminalization of massive environmental destruction as does Stop Ecocide or to establish a governing body to safeguard the rights of future generations such as the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales. In my opinion these developments indicate a movement away from the ‘right to exploit and pollute’ natural resources towards a duty of care for the environment.

A legal duty of care to avoid causing harm to others through climate change or environmental destruction is externally imposed by the justice system. In our recent publication in the Conscious Lawyer, criminologist Anneke van Hoek and myself explore if environmentally caring behavior can also be stimulated in ways that speak to our intrinsic motivation.

In the words of the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon that convened in October 2019, caring for our common home requires deep ecological conversion.

Positive Green Criminology

Anneke and I used the new framework of Positive Green Criminology to explore this question. Positive Green Criminology researches intrinsically motivated care for nature. It’s a term that Anneke and I coined for criminological research into the prevention- and remediation of environmental harm, and is related to the fields of positive psychology and positive criminology. Positive psychology studies how people can flourish and live their best lives. Positive Criminology is coined by the Dutch criminologist Marc Schuilenburg. It researches how we can create safety by strengthening positive feelings such as connection and security, care and belonging.

Positive Green Criminology is informed by insights from ecopsychology, restorative justice, research into eudemonic values, affective commoning and stimulating care through storytelling. I will now shortly describe each of these elements.

1. Ecopsychology, coined in 1992 by Theodore Roszak in his book The Voice of the Earth, studies the relationship between human beings and the natural world through ecological and psychological principles. It seeks to develop and understand ways of expanding the emotional connection between individuals and the natural world, thereby assisting individuals with developing sustainable lifestyles and remedying alienation from nature. A central premise of ecopsychology is that human beings have an innate instinct to care about and connect emotionally with nature. Evidence suggests that many environmentally damaging behaviours are addictive at some level, and more effectively addressed through positive emotional fulfillment rather than by inflicting shame. Ecopsychology has developed various methods of positive motivation for adopting sustainable practices in its applied practice called Ecotherapy. These methods include outdoors psychotherapy, forest bathing, garden therapy, wilderness therapy, green mindfulness and involvement in conservation activities. Such interventions from ecotherapy can assist in developing an intrinsic attitude of care towards the environment .

2. Restorative justice. Restorative justice is a process whereby all the parties with a stake in a particular offense come together on a voluntary basis to collectively resolve how to deal with the aftermath of the offense and its implications for the future. Restorative justice’s emphasis on the healing of damaged relationships, its search for the roots of harmful behavior and its community- and forward looking orientation make it well positioned to address environmental harms. In countries such as New Zealand, Australia, Canada and Brasil, restorative justice has been successfully applied to environmental offenses. Restorative outcomes of these cases: apologies, restoration of environmental harm and prevention of future harm through environmental training and education of the offender; environmental audits of the activities of the offending company, compensatory restoration of environments elsewhere and community service work. In New Zealand and Canada, trees and rivers have been recognized as victims of environmental crime in their own right and have been represented by indigenous organizations in the restorative process. In Brasil, Dominic Barter’s work with restorative circles in the aftermath of the Rio Doce ecocide has contributed to the awakening that the river Doce is an entity with its own rights which needs to be restored to health. The confrontation with human and represented non-human victims during a conference can educate the offender about the harmful environmental effects of his behavior and ideally contribute to his ecological awakening. Engaging in environmental restoration work following a conference can also foster in the offender a sense of belonging and connectedness to the natural world, according to the insights of ecopsychology.

3. Researchers of the EU funded BIOMOT project showed the importance of eudemonic values (expressing the meaningful life) as a motivating force for nature conservation. The researchers interviewed 105 committed actors for nature and found out that the key concept for understanding their committed action for nature is meaningfulness. People act for nature because nature is meaningful to them, connected to a life that makes sense and a difference in the world. All the committed actors in the study had intense encounters with nature in childhood. Such experiences during childhood seem to be essential for the development of a relationship with nature, and for inspiring action for nature later in life.
A way to connect to nature encounters in childhood is by writing down your green life story: guided by questions, you return to early childhood experiences of connection and interaction with the Earth, but you also look at patterns of alienation that caused ecological woundedness and possible ‘unfinished Earth business’.
One of the recommendations of the BIOMOT researchers to policymakers is to ensure in educational curricula and town planning that children have access to nature. And would it not be interesting to ask people to write their green life story as part of an ecotherapeutic intervention or as part of ecoliteracy coaching?

4. Associate Professor and Geographer Neera Singh (University of Toronto) in her research found that through community-based conservation, villagers in Odisha, India, developed “affective ties with the growing plants, trees, birds and animals,” and in so doing, “forests are transformed from nature out there and become a part of the self that is nurtured through care.” She calls this ‘affective commoning’: people who are engaged in the conservation of their natural environment, through the act of taking care of their environment, become “environmental subjects” –who apply their subjective human talents, imagination and commitments and become stewards of elements of nature (rather than owners or users). For clarity: commoning is the practice of collaborating and sharing (outside of the State and market) to meet everyday needs and achieve well-being, of individuals, communities and lived-in environments. I can send links to her research and to David Bollier’s work on the commons to those who want to read more.

5. Finally, a study from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that sharing personal anecdotes about how the climate crisis is changing our lives for the worse can invite people to care, including conservatives. In two experiments, people listened to a short radio clip from 2015 about Richard Mode, a 66-year-old North Carolinian who enjoys hunting and fishing. In heartfelt tones, Mode describes how he’s seen the climate changing first-hand as ducks migrate later in the year and trout disappear from their old territories. After listening to the segment, the study participants — who identified as conservatives or moderates — reported greater concern about climate change and greater acceptance that it was happening and caused by human. This study suggest that storytelling, rather than relying heavily on facts and evidence, can motivate people to care for the environment.

These five elements give clues about how we can stimulate intrinsically motived care for nature. Through childhood nature-experiences, touching encounters in restorative justice settings, empathic listening to moving narratives, writing our own green life story, affective commoning and ecotherapy interventions we can nurture and enable feelings of belonging and connection to the natural world, which give us positive emotional fulfillment and a sense of meaningfulness. As Earthlings we are wired for connection with each other and with the Earth, so when we re-connect (overcome our alienation) to the Earth community it feels emotionally fulfilling and profoundly meaningful.

Quantum Social Change

But how does such embodied care for nature on the level of the individual relate to the system change we so much need? Professor Karen O’Brien’s (Oslo University – Dept. of Human Geography & Sociology) theory of Quantum Social Change comes to mind.

According to O’Brien, history tells us that progressive social changes - such as the abolition of slavery, equal rights for women and marriage equality - have been the result of small groups of individuals who see their world in new ways and act from deeper and more inclusive values. These groups with an expanded sense of social consciousness ascribed rights to previously excluded groups and worked for social and political change. Could this apply as well to groups with an expanded sense of ecological consciousness who ascribe rights to nature? O'Brien's theory of Quantum Social Change explains why their agency could generate such transformative change and - more importantly - how we might access this same quality of agency in response to the climate & biodiversity crises. According to O'Brien:

- Quantum social change means being self-aware and self-reflective about the beliefs we hold about the future. When we ground our speech and actions in universal values (such as Polly Higgins’ credo ‘first do no harm’), we generate quantum fractals that replicate these values across all levels and scales;

- When we connect to others from a place of interconnectedness (also known as 'interbeing'), we transcend separation and are able to access our collective intelligence. Our actions will be impactful beyond linear logic and help materialize new realities that reflect a culture of interbeing; and

- The potential for an equitable and thriving world exists in every moment and we can realize this potential by consciously choosing to “be” the new paradigm. The more often people embody the fractal of interbeing, the sooner we will notice transformative change in society.

This raises the question if when we connect to the Earth from an experience of interbeing, we are able to access the intelligence of the Earth herself? Polly Higgins and Wild Law-author Cormac Cullinan told me that they experienced this, and that their innovative ideas on ecocide law and rights of nature came to them after spending time in nature.

There are also lots of stories about meaningful ‘coincidence’ or synchronicity. A bigger intelligence – the Earth herself? - seems to be at play and bring ecological changemakers together at the right time and place in order to help generate system (and quantum!) change.


Being ecologically ‘awake’ – aware of our interconnectedness with the natural world of which we are an inseparable part – means to be aware of our interbeing with the natural world. O’Brien’s research seems promising! It seems to indicate that that ecologically awake people have powerful agency when they put their knowledge, expertise & heart-wisdom in the service of system change. So how then could we, as ecologically sensitive citizens, be a part of the much needed system change towards a flourishing, ecologically ‘literate’ civilization within planetary boundaries? What would assist us in harnessing this kind of agency that has the power to move mountains?

Readers, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

This article is based on my presentation for the PISLAP Conscious Lawyer call series in November 2020.