Feral Rewilding the Land the Sea and Human Life by George Monbiot centers around the idea that conservation is not enough and that a rewilding effort needs to be in place to reach goals far beyond what most conservation and restoration efforts currently are focused on.
Rewilding is simple in the abstract: bring back the animals, mostly keystone species and large predators, that once inhabited a particular area and then let nature take over. Of course, this isn’t as simple as it sounds, especially because of political and social obstacles (and monetary and practical issues as well).
However, Monbiot cites several instances where this idea is already at work, most notably the wolves of Yellowstone National Park.
It isn’t blatantly obvious how wolves can increase fish and bird populations, but that is how a vibrant ecosystem works; everything is connected! So interconnected that wolves even have a positive influence on soil!
Rewilding isn’t about reaching some fixed outcome like most conservation efforts aim for. The process has no end but the overall goal is to increase “what ecologists call trophic diversity“.
What happens when large predators are removed from an ecosystem is referred to as a trophic cascade. All the rest of the life forms are affected, many negatively.
It is hard to believe, but Monbiot cites the misbelief that removing whales from the oceans would have a positive effect on other fishing, when it is quite the opposite. The damage becomes exponentiated as the ecosystem becomes misaligned and unbalanced. Allowing marine areas to return to normal, by not fishing in certain areas, would allow for the oceanic life to return and even potentially increase fishing outside of these protected areas.
“‘The environmental movement up till now has necessarily been reactive. We have been clear about what we don’t like. But we also need to say what we would like. We need to show where hope lies. Ecological restoration is a work of hope.'” – Monbiot’s friend Alan Watson Featherstone
One major problem rewilding faces is something Monbiot refers to as “shifting baseline syndrome“. People, conservationists included, only remember the ecosystem as it was when they were children and thus desire to return to that. As the land gets depleted more and more, this shifts the baseline to further denude the landscape.
This reduction leads to “ecological boredom” and is probably a major reason there are so many less children to be found exploring nature, an area that Monbiot covers as well.
Feral Rewilding the Land the Sea and Human Life is a fascinating read and something I suggest all naturalists read. Rewilding may be a difficult way to restore nature, but it certainly as the potential to do more for ecosystems than any other conservation method. The large-scale efforts would require the collective work of government and people, especially those whose livelihood would be compromised.
Perhaps the hardest obstacle rewilding faces is our tendency to think short-term, to not understand that it is much easier to destroy than it is to bring back. If we fail to have long-term, multi-century approaches, we will struggle to make the positive impacts that are possible.
Note: The book links are Powell’s Books affiliate links.