Date finished: April 8th 2016
We live in an ever-more managed world. Bureaucracy follows us at every turn – managers of managers and meetings about meetings decide how our villages, towns, cities, countries and planet is run. Despite being called the ‘wild’, the wild is increasingly subject to such bureaucratic pedantry – the lives of endangered species and the possibility of environmental crises depends on money changing hands, inquiries being held and laws being passed. It’s a ridiculous situation in a country increasingly run by middle-management. What we need is a wilder, more spontaneous lifestyle. Perhaps we could rewild the world? That’s where George Monbiot’s seminal environmental work Feral comes in.
Monbiot doesn’t dive into his rewilding premise straight away. The first few, short chapters of the book recount his experiences variously fishing alone in the Irish Sea off the coast of his native Wales, hunting for flatfish with naught but a spear, and investigating the high numbers of big cat sightings and the lack of evidence to support them. In these seemingly disparate essays, subtle themes begin to emerge – the emergence and disappearance of wildlife, the untouched spaces of nature, and the subconscious yearning for a wilder world in society. This is Monbiot laying the foundations for the argument yet to come.
And what an argument it is. Starting off in his hometown in Wales, Monbiot explains that many of the landscapes we consider natural are actually the result of human intervention: the heathery hillsides of the Cambrian Mountains were once home to lush forests which were removed to make way for farmland; our flowing rivers have been managed to fit around our own designs – straightened, and removed of blockading logs which help to prevent flooding by slowing the waters. A lot of what conservationists consider natural has been previously interfered with by humans. The basic premise of rewilding is simply reverting certain areas to the state they would have been before humans arrived in the lands. In Britain, this mostly means a lot of replanting trees and encouraging woodlands to regrow. Once this is done, we let nature manage itself. However, it’s not just environments we’ve lost, it’s wildlife too.
Often in school biology we’re taught about pyramids in which wildlife populations are dependent on abundance of food – that there must be enough of animal [x] or plant [y] in the food chain to support the population above it in the food chain. This kind of simple ecosystem is a largely human-influenced one. Reintroducing species, Monbiot argues – particularly certain keystone species – can have wide-reaching benefits for the entire ecosystem. Beavers reintroduced to areas of Europe have caused a slowing of rivers by moving felled trees into the river, providing cover for young fish and insect larvae, attracting more predators and thus increasing river biodiversity. Beavers also reduce soul erosion and, as outlined above, can help slow rivers to reduce the severity of flooding. Monbiot provides numerous examples of how the reintroduction of one species can dramatically readdress the balance of ecology and undo the effects of human intervention. He doesn’t pretend, however, that all rewilding is beneficial and outlines a need to research the pros and cons before acting. Nonetheless, he puts forward persuasive arguments for the reintroduction of a wide range of species previously native to the British isles, including beavers, sturgeon, wild boar, pelicans, lynx, wolves and even, with time, moose. Benefits include a diversification of British wildlife, a more balanced ecosystem in which some invasive species’ (such as grey squirrels and american signal crayfish) populations could be kept in check by reintroduced predators previously eradicated, increased wildlife tourism and, a somewhat surprising suggestion for an ecological book, increased hunting tourism. Of course, studies and sensible limits would be put on reintroduced populations to avoid any clashes between man and beast and, all told it’s a sound argument and a thought-provoking take on ecology.
If all this talk of moose and wolves roaming the Scottish Highlands sounds a trifle fanciful for you, Monbiot takes some time to consider the counter-arguments, including the incredibly incisive criticisms of a young Welsh traditional-farmer. He always explores the more ambitious and misguided rewilding plans from around the world, past and present, to put his own into perspective. He also delves into the impact of farming upon rewilding as well as the impact that rewilding could have upon farming. Economic arguments, land ownership, how we choose what to rewild and what to leave are all issues central to the book. Monbiot has a plan but it’s by no means definitive or conclusive. His aim is to make rewilding a topic for discussion in wider public discourse in the hopes that we might achieve progress for everyone, not just for fanatical fans of wolves.
Perhaps the most disturbing part of Feral comes when Monbiot chronicles our destruction of the sea. Whereas the land is something we can observe the destruction of, the sea is largely mysterious – we can’t see what’s going on down there. That, perhaps explains how we’ve destroyed so many species and ecosystems through overfishing. For centuries we’ve been fishing more than we need to and grinding up the excess fish as chicken and pig food or as fertiliser for fields. We’ve depleted our own fishing stocks in some species by as much as 98%. Our relentless trawling of the oceans has led us to decrease both the biodiversity of the sea, and the size and quality of the fish we catch. We dredge our waters for scallops using a technique called rockhopping – this is basically a glorified plough that upends boulders and rocks in order to get to the hiding creatures, virtually sweeping the sea clean of life. The impacts of our appetites are far-reaching – our depletion of the oceans has contributed to the amount of carbon in the atmosphere (and not in the way you’re thinking at all) and reverted some areas of the sea to monocultures ruled by a few species that proliferate as their competitors are removed from play. When he confronts the environment minister of the Welsh government over this travesty, the bureaucratic, vested defence she presents is breathtakingly narrow-minded. Repeatedly, Feral highlights the failings of governments, organisations and even conservation groups to truly look after the natural world.
Yet even in such a desolate situation, Monbiot can still find hope and beauty, charting not just the failings in this area, but the successes: the return of whales and other species to our waters, the slowly-but-surely growing areas of conservation and the fantastic turnaround in fishing stocks in these areas.
Feral is a fascinating take on our natural world. Whereas a lot of environmentalism says, “We don’t want this”, Feral says, “We want this”. It is, in other words, a work that proposes a new way of looking at our natural world; that frames a new environmental argument in such a way as to highlight not just its benefits to the natural world, but its social and economic benefits too. Monbiot peppers the theoretical arguments with compelling real-life attempts at rewilding, such as reforestation in the Scottish Highlands, and accounts of his own sojourns into the wilderness and the marvelous beauty and endlessly exhilarating possibilities he’s found there. Though sometimes it can feel a bit unconnected and disparate, its, overall, an accomplished and enthusiastic reevaluation of the natural world around us. Feral is a celebration of nature in its wildest, most untouched form; but also of the human capacity to work with nature in a way more beneficial to both parties. It’s a conversation that we should be having, and Monbiot is a brilliant person to bring it up: passionate, articulate and able to compromise, his vision of a wilder world speaks to something primeval and is a glimpse of something potentially wonderful.