The Call of the Wild; rewilding for environmentalists. Frank Uekotter


Earlier this month George Monbiot gave a talk at Birmingham’s new Central Library. It was a memorable experience, not least with a view to the audience. It reminded me of many similar events that I have attended in Germany. Never in my two months in town have I seen Birmingham so monoethnic (read: white). I also saw a lot of grey hair. If you are in your 40s and want to feel young once more, consider becoming an environmentalist.

Okay, let’s get serious. Monbiot is, after all, a serious man. His oratory style centered on laying out an argument. No jokes for two hours, and very little passion (usually in ample supply in green circles). In short, it was an appeal to reason if ever there was one. But then, Monbiot had a stimulating argument to make. He called for a new approach to nature conservation: rewilding.

From the historical standpoint, it is  surprising that there are still new approaches to nature conservation left. We have been in the business of protecting nature for more than a century now, and it seems as if we had seen it all: nature reserves, national parks, restrictions on hunting, a renaissance of hunting, ecology, biodiversity and so forth. All over the world, states sought to protect all sorts of environments. But Monbiot brought it to a new level.

He called for large swaths of land with no human intervention. If only left to itself, nature would thrive beyond our wildest dreams. And to cap it all off, Monbiot proposed to bring back megafauna long extinct in our backyard. Not for show, but to boost the ecological dynamism.

In other words, he proposed to bring the elephant back to Britain. No, I am not joking. As I said, Monbiot means business.

It is not difficult to conceive possible objections. His trust in the inner logic of nature is heartening, but nature can get off course – particularly in the age of invasive species. It is also debatable whether human intrusions can really be reduced to the desired level. For example, humans emit great amounts of nitrogen oxides nowadays, which amount to airborne fertilization of even remote lands. In this setting, habitats that require a scarcity of soil-borne nutrients are under threat if humans don’t intervene. We have probably done too much damage to the natural world that we can withdraw from management completely.

And then there is public opinion. Monbiot was optimistic that an excited populace would welcome wild animals. But then, we have become accustomed to an environment that is mostly harmless. The worst we usually fear on a hiking trip is a sprained ankle. When a bear returned to Bavaria in 2006, the first one to show up in almost two centuries, officials panicked and had him shot. (The bear had behaved erratically, but that is how bears act when they make a new home.) Fears may not be rational, but they have consequences.

And yet I was inclined to give Monbiot the benefit of doubt. Why not let him try? We have many species and many different types of habitats. We can certainly tolerate a multitude of approaches to conservation. Above all, it is a positive vision for environmentalism, something that does not come along every day. Environmentalists are usually much more certain about what they are against.

One final caveat remains: do we have the land? Monbiot was optimistic, citing a study that European farmers will vacate 30 million acres of land by 2030 (an area the size of Poland). But land use is a contested issue, as I learned at a conference at the German Academy of Sciences Leopoldina this week, and which will form the topic of my next post.

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