I read Monbiot’s book Heat, in which he sets out a plan of how the UK could and should repond to human-made climate change by cutting carbon emissions by 90%, in 2010. I was convinced, but not optimistic; the changes we need to make are radical; the restructuring in transport for example, would be deep, and despite the strength of the argument against doing so even I have failed to stop flying (I have restricted myself somewhat, but totally failed to persuade anyone else), which has become so integral to working life and family together-time as we spread ourselves across the globe.
So when I took up Feral I wasn’t expecting to find so much hope. There is no single narrative here, Monbiot alternates and weaves together anecdotes of his fishing expeditions, intense, dramatic and dense with description and encounters with wildlife and rural places, with discussions of progressive biodiversity loss and habitat destruction caused throughout our history by gratuitous hunting, agricultural practices and often bizarre regulation. He describes how ecosystems are kept healthy by large predators, and explores the potential for reintroducing animals such as lynx and even wolves to the UK, as well as less controvertial animals like the beaver, a herbivore whose dam-building habits create opportunities for a variety of fish and all sorts of other fauna and flora to thrive. Some readers might wish Monbiot would cut to the chase but it’s obviously important to him to share the sense of ‘enchantment’ and revitalisation that has informed his conception of ‘rewilding’.
This rewilding is not a monolithic concept; it is being constructed differently by varied groups of advocates. Monbiot freely admits that, while he can make an impressive economic case, his real motivation is the yearning for reconnection and encounters with exciting ecosystems. He points out how barren sheepfarming has left this country, which without our intervention, would surprisingly be covered in rainforest, as diverse as the Brazilian Mata Atlantica of which it was once a part! He argues against the ‘conservation prison’; the preservation of ecosystems created by historic farming practices and industrial processes that are actually severely depleted. Instead, he wants to see areas of ‘self-willed’ land.
The effects of stepping back and letting nature recover are inspiring. Simply fencing out sheep for twenty years produces a startlingly rich and varied patch of woodland where previously nothing lived but grass. In the ocean, where the biodiversity disaster has been even more dramatic than on land due to destructive fishing practices and the misguided removal of predators, it is even easier to restore biodiversity and ecosystem health; simply by creating marine reserves. This is one example among many in the book of the need for nothing but political will to bring about a hugely beneficial (to the fishing industry and seafood-lovers as much as to wildlife) change at no or minimal cost and with no investment in technology or R & D. In the case of agricultural practice, one solution Mobiot advocates is the removal of a rule that forces farmers to work or graze land they would otherwise leave fallow. One of the more difficult problems is the vice-like grip of extremely wealthy landowners, often living overseas, who seem to wield very disproportionate influence in government.
Monbiot is not naïve about the problems with rewilding areas of land. This is NOT a call for a return to ANY earlier stage of civilisation, to stop cultivation or reduce human populations. He balances his argument with chapters about his discussions with sheep farmers, and a cautionary discussion of the harrowing history of ‘Nazi rewilding projects’ that Simon Schama wrote about in Landscape and Memory. Monbiot also describes indefensible colonial ‘conservation’ projects, such as in Kenya, where imperial rulers have appropriated land from local people such as the Maasai, leaving them without homes or property, to create reserves
On the other side of the argument is another example of colonial thinking; asking people in African and Asian countries to conserve dangerous animals such as big cats and rhinos sits ill with our unwillingness to tolerate predators on our own shores. The reintroduction of the wolf to Yellowstone in the USA is an incredible success story, and its slow reappearance in continental Europe is having similar effects, with very little harm and many benefits to people.
Rewilding, Monbiot stresses, must be a democratic process, fully negotiated with all the stakeholders involved, but it has huge potential to enrich our land, seas and lives. I’m not just convinced this time, I’m full of hope.