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Ecological Boredom

Gabriel Roberts

FeralGeorge Monbiot
Allen Lane, 2013
303 pages
ISBN 978-1846147487


This is a confusing book. It is not (as George Monbiot probably hopes) a winning combination of personal memoir and concrete policy proposal. Rather, it is a congeries of loosely related chapters held together by the concept of “rewilding”, which for Monbiot encompasses the rehabilitation of ecosystems to their natural wildness and the wilding of people and their cultures.

For Monbiot, modern life is too safe. He fears an existence in which feeding the ducks is as close as we want to come to nature, where running is simply a means of keeping fit, and where loading the dishwasher poses an interesting problem. He senses that we have hidden abilities, inherited from our hunter-gatherer forebears, which fust in us unused, tamed by the restraints and decencies of modern life. We are, he believes, “ecologically bored”.

These thoughts are first explored through the experiences of his younger self. As an investigative journalist in the early 1990s, he lived alongside the Yanomami [1], an indigenous tribe from north-east Brazil, who have been oppressed by government-backed gold miners since the 1970s. Amid the gunfire and the gulches of the Amazon, he found himself strangely alive and wonders whether these perilous circumstances roused the slumbering hunter-gatherer within him. Similar feelings arose with the Maasai in Kenya, whose warriors’ graduation ceremonies he witnessed, along with the fragility of their traditional way of life. Comparing himself to them, he felt inadequate, envying their ability to savour danger as a delicacy and their stoic acceptance of an uncertain fate.

These experiences abroad send him searching after wildness at home, although with rather less obvious success. Hunting fish with a trident in Wales, he feels deeply that he has “done this before”, but doesn’t succeed in catching any fish. Hunting mackerel in the Irish Sea in a kayak, he fears that he has caught a poisonous weever [2], but the fish he has caught is actually harmless. And stumbling on a newly dead muntjac in an English wood, he hefts it onto his shoulders and wants to roar, but soberly notes (on the advice of a veterinary surgeon friend) that taking home an animal which has died of natural causes “is a foolish thing to do”. Amusing though they are, such moments of bathetic futility tell us more about mid-life Monbiot than wildness.

But after all the gunfire and the poison and the roaring, Monbiot makes some serious points. He argues that conservationists have underestimated the potential fecundity of today’s wild places by believing that they are well-preserved pieces of the prehuman natural world. But that world was really quite different, being home to astonishing animals and plants. Britain only 15,000 years ago was roamed by reindeer, bears, and mammoths, whose extinction led to manifold ecological changes. The wild places which exist today are little more than faded tatters of the natural world which existed before. In overlooking changes of this kind, conservationists have been guilty of ‘shifting baseline syndrome’, the habit of thinking that the normal population of a species is what was current at the time of one’s childhood. By thinking our way out of this habit, we can grasp what abundance and variety of nature has been destroyed by human causes and we can begin to start thinking about how to make nature wild again.

Here Monbiot turns to trophic cascades [3], the patterns of influence which occur when an organism has an effect on its ecosystem which is disproportionate in scale to the organism’s population. The classic example is the reintroduction of wolves [4] in 1995 to Yellowstone National Park. The effect was a decline in the number of elk and a growth of the vegetation which they grazed. This in turn led to a rise in the populations of songbirds and beavers, which used the vegetation for cover and food, and a formation of deeper soils, which allowed further plants and animals to move in. As a result of the wolves’ reintroduction, biodiversity in Yellowstone bloomed.

Similar results might be achieved in Britain, argues Monbiot, through the reintroduction of animals that we tend to think of as highly exotic, including beavers, wild boar, and moose (all present within the last 10,000 years), and larger animals such as elephants (a species of elephant lived in Britain until 115,000 years ago) and grey whales (absent from British waters since 1610). In particular, he calls for the return of wolves, which were hunted to extinction in 1621. In Scotland there are already plans to replant the Caledonian Forest (the mass of Scots pine, rowan, and birch which covered the Highlands after the last ice age) and here, Monbiot believes, is the ideal habitat for the reintroduction of wolves.

But some of his proposals are more practicable than others. Some are already taking place, such as the reintroduction of beavers, but others are deeply controversial. Though Monbiot argues for the tourism benefits of reintroducing wolves, and points to the revenues generated by the reintroduction of white-tailed sea eagles to the Inner Hebrides in the 1970s, the proposal is staunchly opposed by land-owners, for whom deer stalking is valuable business and who fear that the wolves would attack their sheep. There could also be unforeseen effects. Trophic cascades illustrate not only the scale of the changes which may result from a species’ reintroduction, but also the difficulty of predicting what those changes will be. At times, Monbiot writes as if the mere fact of a species having lived in Britain is a reason for its reintroduction now.

But Monbiot also has other ideas. He argues for radical changes in how nature reserves are managed and for the overhaul of upland farming. Taking central Wales as his case study, he describes how the felling of trees by ancient farmers robbed the land of most of its flora and fauna. With the trees gone, the soil was quickly leeched and eroded, and now supports only a small number of plants. The birches that would otherwise return are held at bay by grazing sheep. Yet parts of central Wales are nature reserves and many of the sheep which graze the area are paid for by government farming subsidies. Monbiot argues that this curious outcome is the result of a failure in conservation logic whereby nature reserves are managed to preserve them in their current state, without regard to whether the land once supported more varied and interesting life. Rather than being restored to their former glory, they are held in a state of miserable abeyance, inhabited only by species which thrive in conditions of depletion.

All of which leads us back to “rewilding”. The term has gained currency in recent years in the name of the charity Rewilding Europe [5], which is having remarkable success in its aim of returning a million hectares of Europe to wilderness by 2020. But Monbiot uses the term far more broadly, which is where his argument begins to break down. It is far from clear that someone who endorsed rewilding in one of his senses, such as planting trees in central Wales, would be likely to endorse it in another, such as hunting animals with melee weapons. A further problem is that different notions of wildness can come into contradiction with each another. Managing a wood, for instance, so that butterflies can thrive might mean felling trees and creating clearings, rather than leaving things to natural processes, which might only create potential habitats for butterflies after the populations which would colonise them had died out. Making the wood wilder in one sense, by increasing its biodiversity, might mean making it less wild in another, by interfering with natural processes.

The truth is that “rewilding” is vague and leads Monbiot to see connections between cases which are really, and importantly, different. The result is too many short chapters on tenuously connected themes. Indeed, for a book making grand and potentially exciting proposals, Feral is disappointingly glib. Monbiot would have done better to concentrate on a single policy proposal, rather than aping the fashion for self-exploration in contemporary nature writing.

Gabriel Roberts [6] is reading for a DPhil in English at Worcester College, Oxford. He is a Senior Editor at the Oxonian Review.