In Kenya, among the thundercloud acacias and herds of cattle, eland, and impala, witnessing the warriors of the Maasai people fearlessly catch the tail of a lion and spear the beast to death, George Monbiot realized something. He thought, while he sat in a hut with 19-year-old Toronkei and his wife, “Had I, as an embryo, been given a choice between my life and his—knowing that, whichever I accepted, I would adapt to it and make myself comfortable within it—I would have taken his.”
That’s how Monbiot, a columnist for the Guardian, writing in his new book, Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea and Human Life, explains “possessing an unmet need for a wilder life”.
And it’s a need that we all share, according to Monbiot. The muted and sublimated lives many of us in the western world lead have dulled the edges our evolutionary history sharpened. “We have had to learn techniques of containment, to press our roaring blood into quieter channels,” Monbiot laments in the book. “Where these urges are familiar to us, experience has taught us how to suppress or redirect them.”
As for those who respond that the “civilized”, quieter, more ordered life is how they like it, Monbiot assures them he is not advocating a form of primitivism. “I’m suggesting that the wilder life can run alongside and can enhance our civilized life, that it’s not necessary to abandon the benefits of civilization in order to engage with the benefits of a rewilded land,” he says from Oxford, England, in a Skype interview with the Georgia Straight. According to Monbiot, we can engage in the natural world and facilitate its expansion while continuing, and benefiting from, the kind of economy that ensures high crop yields and comfort.
Since the term rewilding was coined by conservationist Dave Foreman, there’s been a wave of interest in the ecological restoration of unproductive land and overused sea. In 2009, for instance, Caroline Fraser published Rewilding the World: Dispatches From the Conservation Revolution; and in 2012, Miles Olson published Unlearn, Rewild: Earth Skills, Ideas and Inspiration for the Future Primitive.
The concept of rewilding is based on a wealth of new evidence displaying the delicate interconnectedness of ecosystem species. “Killing predators, such as wolves and seals,” Monbiot writes, “can have paradoxical impacts, severely damaging the prey species and ecosystems that the culling claims to protect.” These keystone species have a profound effect on physical geography, shaping not only the number and behaviour of other animals but the “flow of rivers and erosion rates of the land”. The daily actions of wild boars, another keystone species, echo far and wide as well. “By rooting and grubbing in the forest floor, by creating little ponds and miniature wetlands in their wallows,” Monbiot notes in Feral, “boar create habitats for a host of different plants and animals, a shifting mosaic of tiny ecological niches, opening and closing as the sounders pass through.”
In that light, the solution, according to Monbiot, is to reintroduce animals like wolves and wild boars into the wild and extend the range of their habitats. “There are great opportunities, often quite close to where large numbers of people live,” he tells the Straight, “to bring the wild back on the land and back into people’s lives by allowing natural processes once more to be self-governing.”
In a sense, Feral is the culmination and natural progression of decades of work. Monbiot’s first book, published in 1989 and titled Poisoned Arrows, saw him travelling through Indonesia. His 2003 book The Age of Consent fashioned a set of radically progressive reforms and ideas that are echoed in Feral. In a recent column called “Political Barbed Wire” he excoriates the outsize power of a minority of landowners in the U.K. and shows how their influence stunts laudable environmental efforts.
“One of the greatest forms of social injustice is an exclusion of the poor from resources which have been monopolized by corporations and by very rich people,” he explains to the Straight, tying together his advocacy for social justice and his environmental work. “What we see worldwide are scarce resources being harnessed for the benefit of the very rich—often being devastated by the industries that serve those people. And we see the poor excluded from those resources and greatly disadvantaged by their degradation.”
His 2006 book Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning outlined how we can achieve 90-percent cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions. That project, it turns out, is incomplete without rewilding. “A rewilded ecosystem, with a more interlinked food chain, richer in diversity, richer in structure,” he says, “is likely to be more resilient to climate change than an impoverished ecosystem.”
That theme of resilience underlies Feral. Monbiot seems deeply aware that environmentalism needs to supplement its arguments against the countless destructive measures in our midst with an appealingly expansive alternative.
“I realize that trying to promote rewilding in a country which is undergoing a rapid dewilding could be seen as a kind of fool’s errand,” Monbiot says of Canada, a country that, as he writes in Feral, is becoming a “pariah state”. “But it’s about creating that positive vision. It’s about holding up a picture of where we want to get to and maintaining that spark of hope.…It’s important to have in mind a much richer and more beautiful vision of where we want to get to.”