Monbiot's Feral: a futuristic environmentalism to enthuse us all
On my sister’s Facebook biog, she describes the childhood we shared with one word: ‘feral’. It should be no surprise that, for me, George Monbiot’s new book of the same name feels like a return to my roots.
We grew up in rural Perthshire. As children, we built dams in ditches, rope walkways between trees and dens in the woods. In 1979, before any of us were born, our parents had inherited*, from a distant cousin, this patch of land on the rim of the highlands. Both passionate environmentalists, they decided to try their best to allow it to become a wilder, more ecologically rich place.
This started with native tree species – planted, in some places, in spirals as the best way of mimicking the randomness of nature. Where possible, land was just fenced off to stop overgrazing from under-hunted ruminants, and forest was allowed to regenerate naturally. Over our lives, we have watched as thick birch wood has grown up.
In 1996, our dad wrote a book ‘Revival of the Land’, studying a project at the Creag Meagaidh National Nature Reserve – where they culled deer in such a way as to mimic the wiped out wolves. Within 20 years, this previously barren Highland hillside had blossomed with woodland – the land had been revived.
We were brought up to understand that the heathery hills to the north of the house are a wet desert – the wasteland left by heavy grazing. Until I was five, my father was the shepherd. My earliest memories are of his cheeks sandpapering my beshorted thighs as, with me on his shoulders, he ran up and down the hill, calling instructions to the dogs.
But despite relying on what Monbiot calls ‘the white plague’ for income, our parents always explained to us that it was their grazing, along with that of the deer, and the burning of the heather for grouse farming, which held back the glorious forest which once was.
Of all our games, building dams was the one our dad had encouraged most: it created habitat for bugs, and so for frogs and for fish. And so when, as teenagers, we stopped doing it (and, perhaps more because he was frustrated with the lack of any progress in official government moves) he reintroduced beavers to Scotland. These oversized rodents, we were told, are a ‘keystone species’: wetland is our rainforest. They build it. How dare we tell impoverished Brazilians to protect theirs if we refuse to restore ours?
A couple of years later, to help with the natural regeneration of the woods, he released a small herd of ploughs beneath the trees – otherwise known as ‘wild boar’.
In both cases, there are fences to keep them in. But in both cases, the animals are allowed to re-fill the niche they would have taken on this land for thousands of years until they were wiped out. The crucial functions they bring to their habitats – in one case, building and maintaining the dams which create wetland, and in the other, ploughing up the forest floor so that seeds can embed – have been restored.
The results are remarkable. A decade later, we have a number of beaver families. One of them has built a dam that is around 90 metres long and, at its highest point, taller than a person. Another has, just where I used to maintain a small row of rocks, turned a small drainage ditch into a cascading series of large ponds. The wildlife of Britain evolved for hundreds of thousands of years alongside beavers. They became dependent on them. Now they are, largely, gone, the result is the ecological devastation also known as the British Countryside.
In his book, George Monbiot describes in fascinating detail how habitats the world over have similarly collapsed once a key species has been wiped out. The tropical oceans once teamed with life – thriving on turtle grass. But once the vast turtles which ruled the seas were wiped out, this seaweed on which they had grazed grew longer, and heavier. It flopped over, and rotted. The whole eco-system collapsed, many species, wiped out.
The book is rich with case studies, telling the same story: vast animals once ruled every continent but Antarctica. Once humans arrived, we wiped them out. Only now, he says, are we starting to understand the knock on effects – the ‘trophic cascades’ – of these slaughters – and our potential to reverse them. Where cougars were reintroduced to parts of one national park in the USA, for example, there are now three times as many fish in the rivers as those areas without the big cats.
He also writes about what he calls ‘shifting baseline syndrome’: how each of us laments only the loss of that wildlife which we knew as children. He tells how he is nostalgic for the great eel migrations he saw as a child, where river beds in England would appear to be one wriggling black mess. When his children grow up, they will perhaps remember fondly the days when you could, if you were very lucky, see an eel at all. But no one alive mournes for the loss of the half tonne sturgeons which once filled our rivers, nor the vast great white sharks which, not too long ago, patrolled Britain’s seas.
And his call is for a return, as far as possible, to wilderness – not for all of the land. He recognises the need for farming – but for some of it. He talks about species reintroductions – not just the beavers and boar we have at home, but wolves, and lynx. He even touches on the possibility of bringing Asian elephants in to replace their near cousins, the now extinct straight tusked elephants which once crashed through English woodland.
As well as reintroductions, he has various specific demands which could – and should – be immediately enacted. EU agricultural subsidies require farmers to keep land heavily grazed. They could be given the choice to allow it to rewild. He wants vast marine preservation areas, in which fishing is banned.
For some, this book will be a radical call to action – replete with new ideas about how we could transform the world. For me, it is a reminder of the vision on which I was weaned. And so you won’t be surprised to hear that I agree with most of it. But it’s important to examine a couple of things.
The first is that it’s worth noting that he is very aware of the potential imperialism of such projects, and the need to avert it. He dedicates a chapter to how not to rewild, he emphasises the need for this to happen as a project of the people – particularly those who live on the land – or not at all. This is crucial.
Perhaps most importantly, he reverses the dynamic we too often seem to get from big wildlife NGOs, where we hear of beautiful animals being slaughtered by brutal Africans: a narrative which is, at its best, orientalising, and at its worst, racist. Instead, Monbiot points out, that it is the Africans and South Asians who have allowed their megafauna to survive. He writes mostly about the destruction of British wilderness.
But I have a small concern. Within the UK, he focusses almost entirely on the uplands of Scotland and Wales. Even these will be, for most of the readers of the book, far off lands of which they know little. The whole case all too easily looks like a South Eastern intellectual telling upland farmers what to do.
The case for re-wilding the Highlands is strong, and I agree that it should happen. I would like one day to hear wolves howling from the hill above my parents’ house. But the barren and de-populated nature of the uplands are not intrinsic. It is largely a consequence of feudal deforestation and capitalist clearances. One day, we must hope, the ruined villages will be rebuilt and the soil will thicken once more from the leaf litter of the returned Caledonian and Welsh rainforests and pine forests.
Monbiot describes how wolves have returned to the Netherlands – a country more densely populated than England. I myself have been taken around the beaver dams of the heavily populated Belgium by the man who, it is said, re-introduced the species there. Yes, the highlands should be returned to their former glory. But that’s too easy. I do not think our most fertile agricultural land should all be returned to thick forest, but I do think that, when talking to those in the South East, we need to think about allowing wilderness to return here too.
The second question worth exploring is the angle from which he comes to these ideas. It feels a little like this is the book that he wrote to resolve a mid-life crisis expressing itself in numbness. I couldn’t help but sense – perhaps because there’s a Thom Yorke quote on the back – that is reads like the positive answer to Radiohead’s anthem to suburban monotony “No Surprises”.
He writes at length about a desire for wilderness deep within our bones: his core argument for re-wilding is that it would be a wonderful thing for all of us to be more often able to experience the raw power of nature – to be re-wilded ourselves. He takes the increasing number of sightings in the UK of fictional big cats as evidence that many of us share this yearning. ‘Everyone’ Monbiot declared at the book launch a couple of weeks ago ‘deserves to have the Serengeti on their doorstep’.
This is an argument I like: after all, beyond providing the basics we need for survival, all of the questions of politics and of the market are about what things we think would be nice. I too feel that yearning – I once spent five months walking through the woods in America, and, every now and then, I pine for the smell of sap.
At the launch, he explains why he takes this marvellously honest approach – he wants to make a positive case for environmentalism – he wants to outline a vision. And he is successful in doing so. He also does something which has been needed for a while – he reminds us that environmentalism is about more than climate change.
He is probably right to be positive, but in doing so, he misses out the sense of imperative. We are given the feeling that this is something – a wonderful thing – that we could choose to do, or, if we don’t we could choose to maintain the status quo.
The truth is much bleaker. The need to allow some land and most of our oceans to return to some sort of self sustaining cycle isn’t just about what would be nice. It’s a question of the basics we need for survival.
Already, ocean eco-systems are collapsing – once rich with life, many seas are becoming barren but for jellyfish. When WW2 was over, the government kept pilots in work by paying them to take arial photos of all of Britain. Scientists studying the lowland hills of Scotland in the early 90’s found that the extent of heather coverage had reduced by around 40% since that survey was done. The population of grouse in the Highlands has been in long term decline since around 1900.
Monbiot touches on some of these examples, but, in his relentless desire to paint a positive picture, he doesn’t hammer home the point: those who disagree with his case must find another answer to these problems. The status quo is not an option – it is rapidly melting around us.
Ultimately, though, the effect is compelling. Whilst climate change is critical, the environmental movement has for a while needed to be about something more. My generation needs to remember that the planet is about more than the atmosphere around it.
But (and this is a point I’ve stolen from my co-editor Peter McColl), the politics of wilderness has for too long been dominated by a desire to return to some mythical past – or, worse, has had a nasty hatred of, or, at best, ignorance of people.
What Monbiot is reaching for, it seems, is a new, positive environmentalism – one which on the one hand recognises that saving the planet is about more than climate change and on the other sees a desire to restore wilderness not as encumbered by people, but as something we can do with people, for people: a way of creating a more wonderful planet for our children.
For me, this book felt like a return to my childhood. The politics of wilderness is where I grew up. But Monbiot doesn’t just make an eloquent case for my parents’ life project. He puts on the agenda an exciting and positive environmentalist vision which is neither about romanticising our feudal past, nor about rejecting the best bits of modernity. It is about building a better future for all of us. And for that, we should be greateful.
*I will perhaps write, at some point, about my views on inheritance. But that’s for another day.