In July I had the great privilege of chairing George Monbiot’s presentation on rewilding at the Ways With Words literary festival at Dartington Hall. Before the talk we found a quiet corner and chatted for about half an hour about the book, and some of the ideas and issues it raises. If you’d rather download or listen to a podcast of our conversation, you’ll find it at the end of this post. I started by asking George to give a sense of what his new book Feral is all about.
"It’s about ‘rewilding’ which is a mass restoration of ecosystems. That’s a very different approach to the natural world to that of mainstream conservation in Britain which is all about protecting what’s here and maintaining the ecosystems that we possess. What rewilding does is to try to create opportunities for ecosystems we don’t possess yet; ecosystems of the kind that perhaps we used to but will be different to anything that went before and for the species that we don’t yet have and could have again.
Instead of trying to create particular habitats and particular species compositions, what rewilding seeks to do is bring back some of the missing elements and then allow nature to do what it does best which is to develop its own dynamic processes and its own outcomes. What we are missing desperately in Britain is process, ecological process. Just about every conserved habitat here is kept in a state of arrested development where succession and other processes are effectively prohibited. We are missing almost all the function and structure of ecosystems.
But it’s not just about ecology. It’s also about us. It’s about enabling us to enjoy a rather richer and rawer existence than is permitted to us at present in Britain where everything seems to ordered and regulated and buttoned down, and it’s very hard to escape from that, even if you go into what are supposedly the wildest parts of the countryside. We have nothing that really resembles self-willed land or sea in this country. Our national parks are basically sheep ranches. They differ markedly in this respect from the national parks of nearly every other country on Earth. Most of the world’s national parks are classified under the IUCN guidelines as category 1 or category 2 which basically means governed by ecological processes and set aside largely for nature.
Every national park in Britain is category 5 which means no fundamental difference between that and the surrounding farmland. There’s nowhere to escape from it. It’s even worse, if that’s possible, where just 5 square kilometres out of the 48,000 square kilometres of our territorial waters are closed to commercial fishing. Everywhere else is ripped apart several times a year and life has no foothold there.
We are surrounded on all sides by a remarkably depleted and impoverished ecosystem which I believes helps to create a remarkably depleted and impoverished set of human experiences as well. So what ‘rewilding’ is about is the restoration of wildlife and the functional wildness of the natural world but also about a restoration of wonder and enchantment and delight and hope, which are all things which are seriously lacking in this country.
You’ve spent many years writing your column and your books, such as Heat, about climate change, a subject that’s rarely mentioned in Feral, other than a few times in passing. Does rewilding represent a lateral, alternative route to the changes we need to see or a resignation that an adequate response will never be possible?
What I hope that rewilding does is to produce an inspiring vision which can be one strand of a positive environmentalism, which then I hope will help to transform much more effectively environmental politics into an unstoppable force than only campaigning against the things we don’t like. We’ve been very good as a movement at identifying what we don’t want, and very bad as a movement, with a few honourable exceptions of course, at identifying what we do want. You cannot sustain campaigning on that basis.
You have to have a vision, something better than the standard environmental vision which is – follow us and you’ll get a slightly less crap world than you would otherwise have got. That cannot work for long because it is not sufficiently inspiring. Whereas – follow us and here’s a wonderful, fascinating, engrossing, enchanting world which we could conjure up, which Transition is doing in it’s different way as well. That is a vision that has got legs, if a vision can have legs!
I’d never really had you down as a nature writer before. But Feral contains some of the most beautiful nature writing I’ve read, like Henry Thoreau or Aldo Leopold. Are we seeing a new, softer George Monbiot?
I don’t think some of the people who become the targets of my column would agree that I’ve mellowed much in my decrepitude! I suppose part of what has happened in researching and writing this book is that I’ve rediscovered my roots as an environmentalist. It’s very easy to forget why you become an environmentalist because you get bogged down in data, in parts per million, in Watts, in kilometres and kilogrammes and you succumb to the language and the framing of what Paul Kingsnorth calls "the quants rather than the poets".
Like a very large number of environmentalists, I came to this through a profound love of the natural world. That was always my motivating force and I was almost ashamed of it, because it seemed wooly and romantic and emotional by comparison to the hard, empirical pursuit of trying to work out the best solutions for climate change or any of the other problems that assail us. Now I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that we should stop doing that as well. We desperately need people to do that, but there’s a great danger of forgetting why we’re in this.
That danger is best manifested, for example, in the "natural capital" agenda, where people pretend they love the natural world because it makes money. I don’t know any environmentalist who became an environmentalist because they were worried about the state of their bank balance. It wouldn’t be a very rational decision if that was their motivation. To claim that we should be preserving and protecting the natural world because it is the economically rational thing to do, while that may be completely true, is also a form of lying. It misrepresents our real motivation and our real interest in protecting it.
For almost all the environmentalists I know, the reason for wanting to protect the natural world if you push them on it is because they love it. It’s because it’s wonderful. It’s delightful. It’s astonishing. It’s marvellous. To spend our lives pretending that we’re in it for some other reason is to lie to ourselves and to lie to other people, but at the same time to miss the greatest opportunity there is for reaching people, which is through wonder and enchantment and the invocation of intrinsic values rather than extrinsic values.
And so for me – some people have called my book a Midlife Crisis. I would call it a midlife awakening in that I’ve remembered what it’s all about for me and why I’ve gone into this in the first place. It doesn’t mean I’m going to stop engaging in aspects of quantification, and it doesn’t mean I’m going to drop the grinding, aching process of continuing to oppose the bad stuff. But I feel that I cannot sustain it, let alone ask people who read me or listen to me to sustain their interest if all I talk about is the bad stiff and how to combat it rather than the good stuff and how to achieve it.
Have you seen, since the book came out, have there been any examples of people saying "right, I’m going to rewild this"? What’s your sense of the impact it’s had?
It’s been remarkable. I’ve been really surprised by it. Before the book came out, I went to see all the major conservation groups in this country to explain what was coming, because I was quite critical of them all in the book, and to see what their attitudes were and what traction there might be. While most of them weren’t overtly hostile, one or two of them were. Generally their interest was quite muted and it was clear they didn’t have much intention of acting on any of the issues that I was raising.
Since then it has really changed. It’s changed quite dramatically. The National Trust is already rewilding some substantial areas of its own land. The RSPB is now talking quite openly about rewilding and about a much broader vision of what it should be achieving. Even the Wildlife Trusts, which in some ways are the furthest behind, are mostly committed to what I see as an unambitious, anally retentive and rather ecologically illiterate form of conservation, are beginning to change.
They are beginning to see that what they’ve been doing, in many cases, is much closer to gardening, is obsessed with the composition of plant and animal communities rather than by function, and misses the big picture of what is missing and what would need to be done to restore anything resembling a healthy ecosystem.
Most people who are involved with Transition and most Transition groups don’t tend to own large estates in Wales and Scotland. What does domestic-scale rewilding look like?
Let’s take this back a step, because owning large estates is not the prerequisite for being active in rewilding. There’s a group of us halfway through the process of starting a rewilding campaign for Britain for which we’ve done the exploratory phase. We’re now raising the core funds, setting up a charity and we’ll soon be appointing a director. The idea is to catalyse rewilding across the country, to mobilise in favour of it and that means campaigning through the media, through public forums, lobbying, fundraising, making it easier for those who do have opportunities to rewild to do it.
There are already groups who are raising money through public subscription and using very large numbers of volunteers to get land rewilded, for example Trees for Life in Scotland. In the Highlands of Scotland and in the Southern Uplands, Carrifran who are very strongly reliant on public involvement.
But it’s also true that you can contribute to rewilding on very small areas of land. While our focus is on large core areas big enough to support top predators which turn out to be ecologically critical to anything resembling effective function, those core areas can’t function without a permeable landscape through which animals can move. That requires smaller pockets of wild habitat as well as wildlife corridors and a more general permeability because otherwise the animals in the large core areas become genetically isolated. So we need rewilding on all scales if it’s going to be effective.
You wrote recently in an article about ‘positive environmentalism’, that "an ounce of hope is worth a tonne of despair". How deep a shift does this feel for you?
I should say that I’ve always sought to propose solutions. I always feel a sense of failure if I’d raise a problem without at least being able to hint at a solution. It’s not always possible to do that of course, some problems either are just at the beginning of being understood or don’t have obvious solutions. But in a lot of cases I’ve worked hard to try to find some ways forward and I’ve written one book which was entirely about possible means of change which was The Age of Consent.
In my other books, they’ve all had chapters about how to move forward. But to be going back to my roots and writing entirely about the natural world and of course its interactions with the human world, but the focus being very firmly on the natural world, and at the same time to be proposing an entirely positive vision, that feels new and that feels very exciting to me. I feel inspired by it and other people seem to be as well.
You wrote in the book that "the slowest and most reluctant of any European nation to begin rewilding the land and reintroducing its missing species is the UK." Why is that? What are we afraid of, on a cultural level, what are we so terrified of?
It’s a good question. There’s a couple of ways of answering it. The first is we have been literally cut off from large animals for longer than most other European countries. We expiated our large mammal fauna more thoroughly than any other country except Ireland within Europe. Having done so, we have tended to regard any prospect of the re-establishment of those missing large mammals as an alien intrusion which is to be feared rather than to be marvelled at.
But this is greatly compounded by the fact that our land is owned by so few people. We have on estimate the second highest concentration of land owning in the world and those people are far more conservative than the population as a whole. Not all of them, but on average far more conservative and far more resistant and reluctant to contemplate any kind of positive change, let alone the return of large animals, than most of the population would be.
For instance, the only survey I’m aware of showed that 86% of respondents were in favour of the return of beavers, but the landowners whose land might be suitable for the return of beavers on the whole are fiercely opposed to the idea and invoke a rich mythology in trying to justify their opposition which suggests that they learnt their ecology from the Brothers Grimm in which the beaver somehow takes the place of the Big Bad Wolf.