Rewilding: the Return of the Romantics
Fed up with Thoreau trying to convince you how much better trees are than people? Then let the beavers chew them down and save a Scottish hamlet from flooding in the process. Welcome to the strange world of rewilding: the revamped call of the wild.
There are multiple usages of the term ‘rewilding’, however these can be broadly grouped into two interconnected strands; the rewilding of society and the rewilding of landscapes.
Rewilding of society is founded on the premise that Western society has prioritised culture at the expense of nature for too long. It points to the existence of ‘genetic memories’, residual traces of nature that exist in society, which society attempts to sate through synthetic substitutes. It argues that reintroducing nature to the equation could be for the benefit of society as a whole, as demonstrated by studies which have shown more frequent interactions with nature lead to better health, lower blood pressure, and higher levels of happiness.
The rewilding of landscapes is based on the recognition that we live in an ecological shadowland, one in which the ghosts of extinct species haunt an almost vacant landscape. This shadowland is maintained by decisions made to conserve it. This is due to ‘shifting baseline syndrome’, each generation defines the ‘natural’ environment to be what was present when they grew up. The issues with this are exemplified by the case of the Cambrian mountains, which have been ‘sheepwrecked’. Sheep grazing has created a putting green carpet of grass over much of these Welsh uplands, which is now conserved by environmentalists and propagated by farmers. This landscape, as well as being a biological desert, is economically unproductive, with these farmers’ main harvest being neither wool nor meat, but subsidies.
However, there is a solution. Once re-introduced, apex predators could unwittingly re-engineer the environment, down to the very composition of the soil itself. These ‘keystone species’ would generate trophic cascades; shockwaves which would reverberate down the food chain, reconfiguring the proportion of species at each trophic level and creating a more productive ecosystem.
Rewilding of these landscapes could have environmental, economic and social benefits. Upstream rewilding of catchments has been proposed as a way to mitigate damaging downstream floods, with beavers especially effective in creating natural flood barriers. Subsidised, unproductive farming could be replaced by a more financially lucrative eco-tourism industry.
Rewilding is a plausible solution as, due to globalisation of the food market, there has been a retreat of farming from unproductive areas. It is estimated that an area of Europe the size of Poland will have been abandoned by farmers by 2030.
However, there are significant issues with rewilding, such as a naïve lack of engagement with rural politics and doubts over the potency of trophic cascades. Furthermore, there is a certain spatial bias to rewilding: it tends to focus on a certain types of place at specific spatial scales.
There is an overly romanticised emphasis on large areas with small populations which can be properly independent of the influence of man. At the moment rewilding does not engage with nature in urban or semi-urban places, or even in lowland farmed areas. Currently, all it stands as is a continuation of the David Attenborough brand environmentalism, one in which wolves roam on vast empty plains and people are conveniently hidden behind the lens. This is just not realistic in a world predicted to contain 9.6 billion people by 2050.
Rewilding focuses on the regional, or national scale. On the global scale, rewilding flirts with environmental neoimperialism in its treatment of poorer countries. The land abandonment and expansion of nature in the developed world would be built on the back of industrialising agriculture and curtailing nature in the developing world. If more people can shoot megafauna in Scotland, would they travel to the Serengeti? Rewilding fails to solve the environmental problem, it just shifts it spatially.
Rewilding is undoubtedly based on an important observation; that the Earth’s sixth mass extinction event is rapidly approaching. However, ultimately it uses the same romantic argument, that nature must be left alone in wild, large places. It just argues using modern parlance to rehash an old argument. Rewilding has no fresh input on the old division between nature and culture, the very term reinforces the distinction between ‘wild’ nature and ‘tame’ society. To this end, rewilding is a spatial contradiction, it aims to reconnect people and nature while separating them. In order to actually achieve the ‘rewilding of society’ the ‘wild’ and society must be spatially conflated; the messy, in-between spaces that capitalism forgot in the urban landscape are just as important as large tracts of upland Wales. Conservation is like an ageing rockstar: it must stop playing the old classics, move with the times and focus on its next hit.
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