Alex Lee argues that a programme of rewilding is vital for a future ecosocialist strategy to restore the natural world and halt catastrophic biodiversity loss, and humans should be at the centre of this.
Republished from Socialist Resistance
If you look in any popular bookstore these days, you’ll find books on rewilding…. There are books about rewilding your garden, rewilding your mind, rewilding your life. The word entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 2010 (1) and has seen a stratospheric increase in use (2). In 2019 it was even a contender for the Collins Dictionary Word of the Year (3). But is it just another capitalist marketing ploy?
Well, yes and no. The origins of the word are in ecology, but in capitalism’s drive to market new products, companies have latched onto the word “rewilding” as the latest desirable thing. In recent years there has been a plethora of products that are “fair-trade”, “natural”, “low-carbon”, “sustainable” and “organic”, trends that have a component of a critique.
There’s a demand for “organic” products because modern food production is too highly processed, and contains pesticides that damage people and the environment. There’s a demand for “sustainable” products as capitalism is clearly destroying the planet. Of course, capitalism cannot solve these issues, but makes profits from its own destructive tendencies to offer us a solution in commodified form. Ideas that initially appear to be antagonistic to capitalist accumulation are drawn in, transforming their original meanings and smoothing over any friction these ideas have with capitalist accumulation.
The critique disappears, and capitalism tells us that consumption and the health of people and our planet are totally harmonious, that endless pollution, resource extraction and profits making can save the world. New brands with swish marketing campaigns tell us that the world of happy relations between humans and our environment is just around the corner, if only we buy these new products
It is easy to see “rewilding” taking the same path to becoming a new idea that capitalism turns into something meaningless to sell more products. From its original use specifically within conservation and ecology, it is increasingly used to sell us a plethora of new things… so enrol on a course to rewild your life (4), your relationships (5), your feet (6)… and of course you must rewild your business (7) and branding (8).
Its original meaning, as a specific form of conservation and ecology practice, has been transformed by popular use, especially with the launch of George Monbiot’s bestselling book Feral. It has come to be used as a way of reconnecting with wild nature. However, marketing departments are increasingly using it as new way to sell us the latest product, whether it’s a 4×4, home improvements, or a new brand of healthy snack, but when the hype dies it could end up in capitalism’s lexiconic dustbin.
Despite the popularisation of the term, there is still at present radical content contained in it. There are also some problems, particularly around the “re-” prefix, which argues that rewilding suggests we return to a past state of nature and remove humans from the landscape (an issue that has been discussed by others such as Irma Allan (9) – I will not examine that in this article, but it’s possible that “wilding” is a less problematic word).
Anyway, within conservation science it still articulates a relatively specific meaning as focusing on the reparation of natural processes that have been broken by the environmental crisis. Many conservationists think that this focus on processes rather than specific targets is too woolly and vague, and some argue this failure means rewilding is a useless term and should be abandoned. (10)
However, I believe the inability to produce specific targets is one of most radical aspects of rewilding. This is one of the factors that prevents rewilding turning into another bureaucratic checklist, because it demands a deep understanding of specific landscapes and ecosystems.
I believe that it still contains a radical element in three ways. Firstly, the way that it focuses on restoring natural processes rather than focusing on saving individual species, which resists capitalism’s drive to atomise and separate species from the environment; secondly, the way that it focuses on autonomy for other species, which resists the capitalist machine’s drive to order and control; and thirdly, recognising humans as part of nature rather than separate from it, rewilding can be used to argue new material relations between human society and other species.
Pre-capitalist societies around the world were highly diverse, but one thing they had in common was that markets played a small role, if any, and were subservient to society. People were concerned generally with meeting immediate needs, but even the wealthiest could not escape their dependence on the health of the immediate environment, since they relied on local farming to provide enough food to create stable societies.
However, as Marx argued in Capital Vol I, the initial creation of capitalist markets rips apart this stability with the environment. In particular, he noted in Capital Vol III (11) that capitalism creates a rift between humans and nature, leading to such problems as the soil being exhausted by intensive agriculture.
Land that was previously managed in common, through communal decision-making and primarily for subsistence, was gradually enclosed. Private ownership and the increasing power of the market meant maximising yields, and land became a static commodity that could be bought and sold, and a resource to be exploited as much as possible. Carolyn Merchant’s The Death of Nature shows how male-dominated Enlightenment science of the bourgeoisie tended toward simplistic understandings of nature that supported capitalist exploitation.
These buried alternative, relational views of nature as dynamic and constantly changing through interactions with people and other species. Ecosystems became seen as passive machines, with each organism a cog that kept the machine working, views that gave rise to crude understandings of the world.
Older understandings that landscapes are constantly shaped by interactions were lost, such as the way grazing animals prevented forests from growing, their behaviour instead producing a mosaic of different habitats. The idea of nature being a passive machine led to the creation of a political class that saw humans (particularly men) as superior, able to take control of nature and exploit it for our own ends.
Marx’s dialectical materialism was antagonistic to such views, demanding we pay attention to relationships, processes and change. Although his theories of nature were only very partially developed, John Bellamy Foster in The Ecological Rift shows that, throughout his work, Marx theorised humans and other species to be engaged in a complex metabolic exchange of materials, where all species, including humans, are constantly changing the environment, and the environment, in turn, changes animals.
Rather than simply being abstract cogs in a machine, this view sees other species as consisting of their relationships with other beings. Ecosystems are not stable and fixed. Instead there is a tension between stability and dynamism. There can be stability for long periods, but this can quickly flip into another state if conditions change, creating a new period of stability.
An important component for this dynamism is the animals themselves. In standard conservation science, animals are considered not to have significant influence on the environment, but this is clearly untrue. The atmosphere is only breathable because of the actions of organisms. Specific animals are “keystone species” having an outsize impact on the environment.
Beavers, for example, are ecosystem engineers, building dams that change the course of rivers, creating deep dams, cutting down trees, meaning the landscape is constantly changing. Wild boar digging up roots create tiny niches for new plants to grow. And famously, the wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone Park had a huge impact on biodiversity (12), restoring forests and changing the course of rivers. To some degree, all species impact and transform the environment.
While we have to name parts of the landscape as a forest, meadow, wetland and so on, we must appreciate that ecological dynamics make designations of the landscape only temporary, and all species are active participants in shaping it.
Rewilding as a form of conservation science is founded on a belief that restoring natural processes will allow vast improvements in biodiversity, enabling landscapes to change as they would have done before modern land-management practices. Many argue that we need to leave nature alone, provide it the time and space to repair itself. This is what is called passive rewilding.
However, this has limited potential for resolving the biodiversity crisis. Ecosystems are already broken, and to restore biodiversity we need to make some major interventions first. In contrast, traditional conservation assumes that ecosystems are static, and that landscape change is bad for biodiversity.
Of course, there may be times when people want to keep the landscape static. Standard conservation may be entirely appropriate to area where there are landscapes with vulnerable species that we want to protect, where restoring natural processes may damage them. The problem comes when this is the only method we have for conservation.
Rewilding theory allows us to appreciate that landscape change is what happens without human intervention. Preventing landscape change requires human input, should be thought through, and should appreciate that there is a large labour and energy cost required to keep it this way.
Rewilding theory works on a variety of scales. Much of the literature focuses on large remote areas (so called “wilderness”) where wolves, bears and so on could be introduced. Focusing only on these areas and reintroducing large carnivores has led to antagonism and conflict between rewilding supporters and rural farmers.
Farmers worry about the economic impact and a vision of landscapes without people, as well as an insensitive attitude towards farming. But these large remote areas are only one end of the scale (13). Rewilding on any scale should allow for what we might call autonomy for other species, or what Jamie Lorimer calls “ecology of surprises (14) ”, and he looks at the rewilding project at the Oostvardersplaasen near Amsterdam to demonstrate what this means.
The Oostvardersplaasen was recovered from the sea and was planned for industrialisation in the 1960s. However, due to an economic crisis, the plan for industrialisation was scrapped and the area was abandoned as wetland in 1968. Standard ecological theories at the time suggested this would simply turn to forest without human intervention.
However, the ecological surprise turned out to be the graylag geese, which colonised the area of their own accord and had an unexpected impact on the area, eating the reeds that would lead to tree cover and eventually a forest. The geese were a keystone species, and played a key role creating a more dynamic landscape. They ate the reeds, preventing the wetlands from being transformed eventually into a woodland.
In 1983 it became designated as a conservation site. Luckily, the designation of being a conservation site did not happen until the landscape had already become dynamic. New species that move in and change the ecological system are anathema to standard conservation, so would likely have been removed if it had been designated a conservation area back in 1968.
Now, thanks to the geese making an autonomous decision to colonise the area, there is a huge increase in biodiversity, and it is now a world-famous conservation site. The knowledge learned about dynamic landscapes has been embraced, and now cattle, horses and deer can wander freely around this large site, constantly changing the landscape. Dynamism and change are now encouraged, resulting in huge benefits to biodiversity, but this style of management runs entirely counter to the dominant ideas of science, where nature is ordered and controlled. As a result, the project constantly causes headaches for government officials and bureaucrats, unable to accept that the ecology of the site is changing without their authorisation.
Rewilding at the Knepp Estate
This does not mean that we should uncritically accept all rewilding projects as positive. While the knowledge from rewilding projects provides vital information for ecological science, they exist in a world dominated by a capitalist system that is riddled with contradictions.
The Knepp Wildland Project in Sussex was started at the turn of the century and is the most well-known rewilding project in the UK. This is run by Sir Charles Burrell and his wife Isabella Tree. Tree’s book Wilding tells her story about the project at Knepp, and she paints a picture of them as small-scale farmers, trying all the recommended business practices to keep their intensive farming business alive, but finding that food imports from globalised capitalism are impossible to compete with. They lose this fight, but again, being good capitalists, they start up again, as plucky entrepreneurs trying a new way to create a business from biodiversity.
However, they come up against a repressive and bureaucratic system, ignorant neighbours, falling profits, and outdated scientific practices. Reading the book, it is perhaps easy to forget that her husband, Sir Charles Burrell, is a member of the aristocracy, with a lot of power, money and influence. It is easy to forget that they own a huge area of land, and even though their business was in trouble, they could have easily sold land or some of their other assets to make money, or turned their land and castle into a heritage site and charged visitors to view it. It is not as if they were about to become destitute, but you wouldn’t know that from the book.
What the book does do well is to show how much The Knepp Wildland project has improved biodiversity on the site. It is worth noting, though, that this is from a very low benchmark, industrial farming having devastated wildlife in the UK since World War II. The project has deer, cattle, pigs and horses roaming freely within its boundaries, creating a dynamic, patchwork landscape where areas of open grass, shrubs, and trees come and go. This provides a great deal of habitats for species, and the actions of the animals create microhabitats from walking, digging, and other interactions.
Populations of purple emperor, turtle doves, and nightingales have increased, whereas the story for the rest of the UK is of massive decline and possible extinction in this country. However, this has been at the expense of local food production, which closed down to make room for the rewilding project.
Additionally, it is clearly not an emancipatory project. Signs saying “Keep Out” proliferate across the site, demanding people keep to the rights of way. You can access these places if you are wealthy enough to pay for a safari, but it is not possible for the poor to see an exciting bird of prey and wander off the path.
It seems to be based on the colonial safari schemes in Zimbabwe, which hugely influenced Sir Charles Burrell, where the rich white tourists are driven around while the poor are excluded behind a fence. Knepp exists as an island of biodiversity in a region where the ecology is being devastated, providing a place for the rich to enjoy wildlife, while the poor are excluded from most of it.
Isabella Tree does not seem worry about whether the working-class should have local food – Knepp only provides quality meat from free-roaming animals, which sell for high prices to other members of the bourgeoisie. Instead she sees the globalisation of food production as being inevitable, and as such, while we rewild spaces in the UK for the wealthy, other parts of the world are being destroyed by intensive agriculture in order for the working-class to eat poor quality imported food.
As John Bellamy Foster shows us, “objective” knowledge about ecology can be used to reinforce the power of the rich. Tourism and media coverage are essential to their business model, hence ecological decisions are made on the basis of profits. The reintroduction of storks seems to have been driven by their potential to attract money, media attention and tourism rather than ecological benefits. That’s not to say there are no sound ecological reasons to reintroduce storks; there are, and I believe their reintroduction is positive, but the fact that the reintroduction was driven mostly by their potential for profit is a concern. Despite a huge increase in interest since the stork reintroduction, there are no public toilets, benches, picnic tables; these are only provided if you pay for the glamping or safari tour.
Isabella Tree says an abundance of people would destroy the wild feel of the place, which suggests that she is not enthusiastic about the public walking through her land. Academics and postgraduate students are free to roam around Knepp with permission from the landowners. However, these academics are generally white and not working-class, and consciously or not, they may be using theories that reinforce the position of white patriarchal elites.
The poor are unable to access most of the site, thus they are prevented from understanding the ecology of rewilding themselves through a working-class perspective. This links in with a general lack of criticism from ecologists about the project regarding the social and political impacts.
Academics focus on the conservation benefits, which is understandable, because the project is providing some major improvements in how we understand nature. But standard empirical sciences are not suited to grasping the tensions and contradictory forces, in ecosystems or in human societies. To understand these tensions requires dialectical thinking and connecting humans into ecological theory. This is evident in John Bellamy Foster’s work, as well as others, such as Levins’ and Lewontin’s book The Dialectical Biologist. However, rewilding projects do provide some potential for moving ecological science towards dialectical and Marxist ways of understanding ecology and society.
Including humans requires a socialist politics
Traditional conservation creates a particular problem with regard to human relationships to nature. Rewilding in mainstream conservation is founded on standard understandings of biology, that is, that humans and other species require separate sciences to understand them. The splitting up of knowledge into “social science” and “environmental science” means that human interactions with rewilding sites are not fully incorporated.
There are often nods towards rewilding as good for mental health and that local communities need to be involved in decision-making, but there is little recognition that human activity can make a landscape more dynamic and biodiverse through our interactions with the land.
Rewilding recognises that all other species interact with the landscape to create dynamism, so why are humans not seen in the same way as any other species? Up until capitalist times, interactions between humans and non-humans were in many ways mutually beneficial in creating dynamic, biodiverse landscapes. If we include human interactions with other species in the analysis of healthy, natural processes, we must reconfigure society to change the destructive tendencies of capitalism into positive ones that benefit other species instead.
This separation of science creates physical separation and alienation. Nature exists in the countryside; society exists in the city. However, as John Bellamy Foster argues, we need a single science for studying both humans and nature. This means that rewilding must include human interactions and with nature. In order to rewild nature, we must therefore rewild human society too.
It enables us to see that a socialist society could transform these processes, through common ownership of land, enabling local people to meet more of their needs from the landscape around them. This is not a deep-green call for a return to some primitive society, but by focusing on creating beneficial processes between humans and non-humans, modern technologies can actually enable us to create an better relationship with other species.
Capitalism is founded on ever-expanding exploitation of nature, so this means rewilding demands a socialist transformation. This also will mean that nature has to be given a cultural importance, where people learn to make a living from the land around them, but also to respect nature’s limits and create better habitats for other species with their activities.
Rewilding can be part of a socialist programme for transforming our collective relationship to nature. For this to happen we need to destroy the separation in science between humans and other species, and to see rewilding as a scale rather than obsess about creating wilderness without humans. Sometimes creating wilder spaces will not be appropriate, because it may benefit humans or other species for it to be controlled.
Repairing the destructive metabolism between humans and other species is radical, because we have to end the ruthless exploitation of resources, pollution and consumption. In the short term, this means fighting for a Green New Deal to transform energy production and usage.
In The Case for the Green New Deal, Ann Pettifor also talks about the need for local economies. It is capitalist insanity that apples are grown in New Zealand to be sold in the UK, when most towns could have some orchards to provide for us. Where production can be local, it should be local. It means where locally available resources are needed, such as wood, people can collect these from common land close to where they live.
Democratic decision-making and regulation on the use of commons resources would prevent over-exploitation. Coppicing has been shown to be hugely beneficial to trees and other species. This also means an end to relying on the Global South for extractive capitalism and as a dumping ground for our waste. Materials should be recycled as much as possible and products designed to last as long as possible, as well as being fully repairable.
Additionally, a local economy would mean far less commuting for work. This would not just reduce CO2 from transport but would provide quieter streets with more space for people. During the first lockdown in 2020, there were clear signs of other species being more confident in being out in our towns and cities due to fewer cars on the roads.
Food growing should be organic, small-scale and local. The peasant group Via Campesina have been arguing this for many years, and even the UN recognises that this is actually more productive than industrial agriculture (15). Family farming is beneficial for connecting us to the soil, the seasons and natural cycles. Permaculture theories can also help improve growing techniques so that they increasingly benefit biodiversity.
Cities, of course, need to be public and democratic, but they can also be wilder by the design of the cities themselves benefiting the species that live there, and by having a deep understanding of what species that live there need, as Petra Severijnen shows16. The integration of material connections to nature into our cities and the reality of people’s lives would result in a transformation of cultural values too.
The more people connect in their daily lives to the seasonal changes and natural cycles of nature, the more they would respect and care for nature. Solving people’s alienation would result in a nurturing of the environment and major cultural change, which would encourage more walking, wild swimming, birdwatching and foraging as a result of such reconnection.
As one visionary farmer commented, we should not be visiting national parks, we should be living in national parks. We can all be living in national parks, from the moment we wake to the moment we go to sleep, if our principles of caring for other species and nature are integrated into our ecosocialist future.
11. Capital Vol III, 1991, Penguin, p.949