Penguin, 2014, pbk 336 pp
Reviewed by Marian Van Eyk McCain
The only time I ever met Monbiot—a decade and a half ago when we were both in a radical anti-GMO protest—I was struck by the aura of passionate fierceness he carried. It’s clearly a fire that still burns. But at fifty-one, as the warrior energy of the young activist starts to encounter the more careful, considered wisdom of the elder he will soon become, there is less bold certainty, more listening and questioning, more weighing of the options—and of course some midlife grieving for not only the wildness our world is fast losing but for the wildness within. The young zoologist/adventurer who once longed to swap lives with the young Masai warrior is now the middle-aged environmentalist who sadly admits that with so few lions left to us we have little choice but to deny the Masai their traditional lion-hunting lifestyle.
But what if we could have it all? What if we could—albeit gradually and for a start in certain protected places—bring back the lions, the hippos, the elephants not only in Africa where those precious few still roam but to some of the places where they haven’t roamed for many thousands of years? According to this book, there is archaeological evidence that such creatures once hung around Trafalgar Square (could Landseer’s lions be a race memory, I wonder?!) Surprisingly, some of our indigenous tree species are adapted to cope with foraging by elephants.
When megafauna were plentiful everywhere and humans few, natural checks and balances worked as smoothly for our species as for others. But as humans got smarter and started making spears and boomerangs and other such weapons, the balance began to shift. Monbiot’s research shows that this happened all over the world and much, much earlier than we may have believed. Animals we know only from the fossil record, such as the giant marsupials of Australia and South America were almost certainly wiped out by Homo sapiens. So here we are now, with our top predators almost all gone and our ecosystems suffering massive losses of biodiversity. Because, as we now know from our studies of ‘trophic cascades,’ removing a crucial element from an ecosystem sends the whole system awry. And when humans take over, wild Nature declines. Where once there were wolves and bears, now there are just sheep. And sadly, our conservation policies, instead of championing Nature’s right to do its ever-changing thing, are often attempts to freeze-frame it into stillness. Worse still, such policies, as well as being misguided since they lead to even further decline, tend to favour the rich and powerful. Golden eagles are poisoned to ‘protect’ the (plentiful) red grouse that certain folk like to shoot.
We go along with this because it is all we know. To imagine it otherwise is to dream big—and to trust wildness enough to go wherever Nature leads, nudging here and there but not trying to take over. This is how Monbiot dreams. Rather than seeing the bare hills of mid-Wales as beautiful in their remoteness he sees them as ruined, ‘sheepwrecked’ landscapes and re-imagines them as they once were—and could be again—thickly forested and rich with wildlife. We know, from the greater diversity that remains in those few remaining crevices where sheep cannot go, and in areas from which they have been experimentally fenced out, that we can mostly rely on Nature to do the detailed work of rewilding, though here and there some kick-starting may be needed. Incomes affected by loss of farmland (except for the absentee landlords for whom Monbiot has no sympathy) can be adjusted, he says, by certain changes to the CAP and subsidies. The ‘real’ farmers can be protected. He has those details all worked out. For this is a book in which pages of beautiful and lyrical Nature-writing are punctuated by pragmatism.
This author’s biggest dream is the restoration to completeness of fractured ecosystems by the eventual re-introduction of the wolf, the lynx and other large mammals to our British landscapes in the same way as this is already being done in other parts of Europe and in certain areas of North America.
There are caveats, of course. Rewilding can have a shadow side, as this book points out by recalling fanatical Nazism in which the wild forest played a part in Aryan superman fantasies.
Rewilding of this green and pleasant land is a bold dream but it needs to be well thought through and realized with care and consideration for the needs of all. Not an easy task. But every dream needs bold young warriors to dream it into awareness and careful, compassionate elders to oversee its implementation. This book, written by a midlife man with a reputation for iconoclasm, could be a good place to start.