Few books have stimulated so much thinking, and coalesced so many of my existing ideas, as George Monbiot’s book Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea and Human Life. I owe a debt to Simon Greenland-Smith, who gave it to me after his thesis defense as a thank you. Monbiot makes a many-faceted argument for re-wilding of a new (and sometimes radical) kind. He is not for restoration that turns back the clock, holding a landscape in a nostalgic level of human modification, suppressing succession or ignoring the changing global conditions. Rather, he’d like to see us take a chance and remove such pressures and see what new ecosystems emerge (barring introducing an elephant or two). In his own words (p. 10):
…I have no desire to try to re-create the landscapes or ecosystems that existed in the past, to reconstruct – as if that were possible – primordial wilderness. Rewilding, to me, is about resisting the urge to control nature and allowing it to find its own way. It involves reintroducing absent plants and animals (and in a few cases culling exotic species which cannot be contained by native wildlife), pulling down the fences, blocking the drainage ditches, but otherwise stepping back. At sea, it means excluding commercial fishing and other forms of exploitation. The ecosystems that result are best described not as wilderness, but as self-willed: governed not by human management but their own processes. Rewilding has no end points, no view about what a ‘right’ ecosystem or a ‘right’ assemblage of species looks like. … It lets nature decide.
The ecosystems that will emerge, in our changed climates, on our depleted soils, will not be the same as those which prevailed in the past. … While conservation often looks to the past, rewilding of this kind looks to the future.
The Common Agricultural Policy is given scathing treatment, for incentivizing continued grazing and mowing land even where production is not needed or even productive. He lambasts conservation groups for maintaining grazing in parks to retain the species that existed under that pressure. He draws on shifting baseline syndrome, which we recently used in the Mactaquac Dam case work, to reveal the landscape impacts of otherwise benign generational forgetting. He describes re-wilding as re-introducing humans to landscape as much as native species (although he leans heavily on the economic benefits of tourists to replace production, an economy that will have limits in terms of scale, especially for places with a long winter). But he seeks to keep people like farmers in the picture; increase their options rather than erase them (p. 11-12):
I do not think that extensive rewilding should take place on productive land. It is better deployed in the places – especially in the uplands – in which production is so low that farming continues only as a result of the taxpayer’s generosity. … It should happen only with the consent and enthusiasm of those who work on the land. It must never be used as an instrument of expropriation or dispossession.