by Joshua Sterlin
Conservation biology: rewilding for landscapes
The origins of the academic use of the term rewilding are in conservation biology. This interdisciplinary field is oriented towards the management of species, habitats, and ecosystems with the aim of protecting them. Current extinction rates are so high that we are likely living through the sixth mass extinction in the history of the planet, rivaling the one that snuffed out the dinosaurs. Rewilding was turned to as a way to mitigate the stunning rates of biodiversity and habitat loss. Fundamentally it seeks to aide and allow natural systems to regenerate their processes through methods novel to conservation paradigms. So, what does rewilding mean to conservation biology?
In conservation biology, rewilding was turned to as a way to mitigate the stunning rates of biodiversity and habitat loss
First, its view is large in scale, to account for the connectivity and size necessary for supposedly intact ecosystems to flourish. Many animals travel thousands of kilometers in their natural rhythms. The fragmentation of the landscape resulting from industrial agricultural, extractive, and settlement activities have radically impacted their lives, cycles, and needs.
Second, this is often coupled with the reintroduction of predators at the top of food chains, and other (keystone) species that structure entire ecosystems. Many of these have been extirpated from their previous range. Often these are predators that have been perceived to compete with, and complicate, settled societies.
Third, sometimes nature cannot ‘auto-rewild’ as quickly or easily as desired, so restoration and engineering projects are used in its aide. The goal is to facilitate conditions which, to the eyes of the conservation biologist, will not require human management so that the environment can eventually return to being self-regulated.
Essentially, the notion is to let, encourage, and help, non-humans to return to living their self-willed lives, in large, and regenerating, ecosystems. This idea might appear to be yet more meddling by human beings in the environment, which has often resulted in degradation. However, rather than engineering or designing the landscape, the central motivation is to aide nature in its own direction towards rejuvenation and resiliency, through specific targeted actions. These kinds of rewilding projects are undertaken not only by scientists and states at large scales. Committed people all over the world, from communities to guerrilla rewilders, use methods like reintroducing native plant species or removing invasive ones to rejuvenate the landscapes they live within, and love best.
The most cited example in North America is Yellowstone National Park. By 1926, settlers succeeded in exterminating and driving out the wolves from the park. In their absence, the numbers of browsers and grazers like elk reduced the vegetation dramatically, changing the landscape in radical ways that were only revealed again with the reintroduction of wolves in 1995. Their renewed presence in the park led to not only the reduction of elk population, but a shift in their behaviour. They now avoided places where they were most at risk of being predated upon, like valleys. The absence of their sustained feeding led to the regeneration of forests and vegetation. This then welcomed birds, and also beavers who dammed parts of the river, further changing the landscape. The river’s course also shifted because of the recovery of vegetation which stabilized the banks and led to a less meandering watercourse. This is called a trophic cascade, in which changes at the top of a food chain tumble all the way to the bottom.This almost hundred-year ecological saga shows how easily the baseline of what is perceived as ecologically normal, or ‘untouched’, can shift in a short period of time.
Conservation and coloniality
The history of Yellowstone is also deeply colonial. In 1872 President Ulysses S. Grant wrote the park into existence while simultaneously excluding the multiple groups of native peoples living there seasonally, like the Nez Perce, members of the Blackfoot confederacy, the Crow, and the Shoshone. In 1868 the latter negotiated a treaty with the United States government in which they ceded their lands in exchange for hunting rights. However, the government never ratified the treaty, nor formally recognized the Shoshone’s claims, merely taking the land and removing the Shoshone people. This theft was the end of 11,000 years of sustained human inhabitation of the area.
The notion of nature as a separate bounded entity that only flourishes in the absence of human touch prevented settlers from recognizing that what they saw as ‘wilderness’ was actually landscapes deeply shaped by people.
This context of conservation engenders a central criticism of this kind of rewilding. Conservation paradigms generally seek the removal of human impact on nature. This is an extension of an imagined separation of nature and culture within the Western mind that reaches, at least, as far back as the period dubbed the Enlightenment. Its colonial importation to what became the Americas therefore cast human impact on the stunning ‘new wilderness’ as negative. Therefore, the millions of inhabitants were either depicted as not human, or in need of removal, and often both. This deeply colonial and racist ideology led to the removal of both predators and millions of native peoples from their landscapes. The notion that nature is a separate bounded entity that only flourishes in the absence of human touch prevented settlers from recognizing that what they saw as ‘wilderness’ was actually already landscapes that were deeply affected, and shaped, by people. This revelation, that all the living beings that make up the landscape might flourish more because of human involvement is part of why the concept of rewilding has been taken up much more broadly outside of conservation sciences.
Rewilding for humans: what is our niche?
This forces us to ask the question: what is the appropriate place for the human animal in an ecology? We certainly are an ecosystem engineer like a beaver; and at times a top predator, like a wolf; and have cascading effects within any landscape we live in. With the aide of skills like symbolic language and technological capacity, we have been able to live in essentially every region and climate available, and have done so for millennia in sustainable ways. Yet, starting 10,000-12,000 years ago, many of us have lived in comparatively new agricultural civilizations based upon the settlement, and the domestication of animals and plants. That change in trajectory, in which the majority of humans shifted their relationship with nature and each other from a form of relational trust, to one of domination, accumulation, and instrumentalization, has built towards our present planetary crises. In the face of these conflicting histories, what might be the proper ecological role, the appropriate niche for human beings? What qualitatively set apart the way the Shoshone in Yellowstone lived from that of the colonialists and their descendants?
The question of how we might live in a manner that is mutually enhancing with the natural world is not only one of pressing survival, but of justice for humans and the rest of the living world.
These questions open onto long-standing debates about human nature (see the first contribution to this Resources series by Eleanor Finley) that are fraught with histories of colonialism, racism, and dispossession. Debates about human nature are deeply political and have been used as justification for a whole host of contradictory, and often disturbing, projects. However, the questions as to how we might live in a manner that is mutually enhancing with the natural world is not only one of pressing survival, but of justice, for humans, and the rest of the living world.
There is a growing movement, largely allied with anarchist, radical environmentalist, and decolonial practice, repurposing the term rewilding to be a political and cultural project that is more than merely conservation biology, one that thinks about nature with the people in. Many indigenous peoples have been exemplars of sustainable lifeways, whose relation to nature has achieved durable ecological balance. Settler societies are beginning to glimpse this as they face burning forests and collapsing fisheries. Taking cues from, and in alliance with, indigenous peoples, political and cultural rewilders are trying to enact decolonial practices by applying the ideas of rewilding to human beings. This is not looking backwards to an essentialized past but to a hybrid and flexible future of self-willed more-than-human communities, outside of, and after anthropocentric systems of domination.
Rewilding the World: Dispatches from the Conservation Revolution by Caroline Fraser (2010)
This book gives a broad overview of the work being done all over the world in conservation that is inspired by the rewilding approach.
Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding by George Monbiot (2013)
This is a more personal account of what rewilding might mean for the land, and for a modern Western person.
Rewild or Die: Revolution and Renaissance at the End of Civilization by Urban Scout (2008)
This book is a series of essays on the political and theoretical underpinnings of rewilding as a project much beyond merely conservation, expanding on what is written in the second half of this article. You can also visit Rewild.com.
The Trouble With Wilderness by William Cronon (1995)
This is a seminal essay on the problematic Western conception of ‘wilderness’ and its implications for how we manage and treat the natural world.
How maverick rewilders are trying to turn back the tide of extinction by Patrick Barkham (2020)
A recent article in The Guardian describing the growing movement of those rewilders who are “secretly breeding endangered species and releasing them into the wild. Many are prepared to break the law and risk the fury of the scientific establishment to save the animals they love”
‘This is my message to the western world – your civilisation is killing life on Earth’ by Nemonte Nenquimo
A recent article in The Guardian written by a Waorani woman, one of the many indigenous groups who inhabit the Amazon rainforest, addressed to the political leaders of the world. The tagline reads: ‘We Indigenous people are fighting to save the Amazon, but the whole planet is in trouble because you do not respect it’.
As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (2017)
Written by Anishinaabe scholar and activist Leanne Simpson, this book details the many Indigenous political resurgences as being rooted in place-based, uniquely Indigenous lifeways, and thinking.
Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources by Kat Anderson (2005)
This is a thorough exploration of the ways that Indigenous peoples interacted with, managed, and lived with, the more-than-human world in what is now called California.
Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States by James C. Scott (2017)
An excellent, accessible, and engaging summary of what recent research has revealed about the earliest days of our transitions in agricultural states, with a particular focus on Mesopotamia.
Joshua Sterlin is a PhD candidate in the Leadership for the Ecozoic program at McGill University, Montreal, Canada, having been trained previously in environmental anthropology. Visit him at jsterlin.org.