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.
Thanks for finally writing about > Monbiot
Well Flannery is a proponent of the overkill hypothesis in Australia, though the issue is still highly contentious and is likely to have been a combination of factors.
Who ate all the megafauna?
Hey Adam. Great article – good points well articulated. Forgive the following essay. I started writing it and got somewhat lost in my thoughts!
For me your article made me think back to my own childhood in rural Gloucestershire. Rolling fields of rape and cereal with interspersed copses full of overfed pheasants that got intermittently shot at by… well, lets just call them folk at Cirencester Ag College. I guess the point is, those fields and woods and hedgerows of wild roses, sloes and hawthorn, the odd meadow or a few acres of set-aside (and the barn owls in that tumble-down barn) – that was my entire conception of wild nature as a child. Only now do I know how very artificial that landscape was and is. But that’s basically the whole of the UK. The thing is, with 60 million people on a small island, the land is always going to be a construct, even if we try to painstakingly reconstruct… something (but what exactly, from when?).
At first I thought that the whole situation in the UK is so very different to my new home of Australia. Here we still have vast wildernesses, or so at least we think of them. And yet the land here is the product of 140,000 years of human impact. All the megafauna is gone. Indigenous people once replaced the ecological processes those animals undertook through complex fire management. These days, indigenous Australians are largely dislocated from land (just as most Scots are from their ancestral highland land). Europeans (those young naive interlopers who have yet to understand the strange rhythms and cycles down here at the bottom of the world) thought they could bring European land management practice with them. And then we seem surprised that all of this country’s great river systems are in ecological meltdown and that unstoppable super fires tear into the heart of Victorian suburbs.
An Australian scientist, writer and thinker that I greatly respect is Dr Tim Flannery. He has postulated that indigenous Australians have been here so long, in a land of unparalleled geological stability, that they became a keystone species in the ecosystem. Indeed, strong evidence has linked removal of indigenous groups and traditional land management in the 1970s with hundreds of small mammal extinctions. Flannery also postulates that it took a very long time for such a balance to be reached.
Where am I going with this? Well I suppose that my point is, as long as people are present on the land, they will shape it around them. And this is not always a bad thing. However, getting it right may take a very long time. And it probably requires a stable and just social system for such a positive relationship to emerge (if I can go a bit social ecology). That possibly explains why Australian land has been destroyed, raped and otherwise completely misunderstood for the past two hundred years – just look at the fucked up social history of the ‘lucky country’ and it all makes sense. I wonder, does Monbiot’s book look at the social power structures that underly land management in the UK? Because I would think that is the heart of it (the problem and the solution).
And then of course there is the problem of what we reconstruct. Again, you might think that Australia is very different to the UK, with its apparently vast wildernesses. But aside from the Kimberley in northern WA (which just narrowly missed destruction by the mining industry) pretty much every scrap of land on this continent has been wrecked. The Kimberley is the only place that has escaped cats, rats and foxes and still has indigenous people living a mostly traditional lifestyle on the land. In most places, traditional land management is now gone, or where it does exist in pockets, feral invasives have collapsed once thriving ecosystems. The worst part is, most Australians haven’t a clue about the reality out there. With a colonial history and an embedded cultural idea of a vast land with endless resources, society hasn’t done any sort of holding back. Now there are tiny pockets of old wilderness left, such as Tasmania’s Tarkine (remnant of the great Antarctic forests), surrounded by destruction. And the wounds here are fresh, more so than in the UK where the scars are so old that people think they’re natural.
So I ask myself, what is Australia to do when considering Monbiot’s thesis? Re-wild to what? And how? Hundred’s of invasive plant species choke the land. They will never be removed. Indeed, many are naturalising and are showing the first signs of speciation in their genetics. All vast megafauna is long gone. Extinctions here are the highest on earth, by a very long way. Indigenous culture lies shattered, for the most part. I should note that tens of thousands of proud aboriginal Australians today feel powerful connections to country and their traditions. However, this is dislocated from political power – at 2.5% of the country’s population Aboriginal Australians currently play no significant part in large-scale land management practice (compare this to the greater political power held by Maori people, representing 15% of NZ popn). And many many more indigenous people live in big cities and retain only fragments of old lore. So traditional fire management is all but gone. Mining and intensive farming gouges and desertifies. And now coal seam gas extraction poisons ancient aquifers, destroying the only long-term fresh water reserves in a land of drought. Where to turn? What to recreate? Stopping a rabid mining industry is the top of the list. But here there are no substitute megafauna to reintroduce. The best that could happen is if politicians listened to indigenous wisdom with respect to land management. But then, we are not re-wilding so much as finding some new balance, some new construct.
So I suppose my closing point is, if you take Monbiot’s ideas and move them out from the UK, in this case to Australia, then you see that perhaps they might be too simplistic. I simultaneously love the concept of re-wilding and also find it extremely problematic. Perhaps the most we can do is to understand ecological processes, the flows and interrelationships of complex systems, and do our very best to nurture those flows, those relationships, that complexity, whilst simultaneously meeting the needs of an ever-growing human population on a very finite planet. But we must be wary of nostalgia and avoid the trap of trying to recreate some imagined past. There’s no going back – we can only ever create a new reality. I think that for me, the ‘new reality’ bit is key. Certainly here in Australia there is so much cultural baggage, pain, insecurity, denial, destruction… so very much has been lost. The only way is forward, to new horizons. I don’t have all the answers but I think it’s got to be wrapped up with the creation of a new social reality – of greater/truer democracy and accountability and of increased connection of people to each other and to place.
My response was a bit different to yours – Feral – Monbiot goes where the wild things are http://www.energyroyd.org.uk/archives/8792