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Rewilding the World: Thoughts from Maria Bateson

The George Square Lecture Theatre is packed as the audience awaits the start of the event.

Our student reporter Maria shares her thoughts on ‘Rewilding the World: with George Monbiot and Alan Featherstone’.

Hope. It’s a depleted resource these days. With constantly growing concerns over the fate of the economy, society and the environment, it seems that there’s little to keep our sagging chins up for. We’re doomed: I’ve even heard it passed off as a statement of resigned fact in lectures. By and large, you’re meant to accept what you hear in lectures, or at least consider it an educated opinion. Surely, if the educated opinion is foretelling the imminent downfall of the Earth, then something needs to be done, and fast.

That’s what Visions for Change is all about. Run by the University of Edinburgh department for Social Responsibility and Sustainability, Visions for Change is a lecture series aimed at raising awareness for, and generating critical discussion of the environment’s future. The inaugural event, Rewilding, held in the George Square Lecture theatre, got us off to an oddly encouraging start. I say oddly, because George Monbiot and Alan Featherstone, both of whom presented their views on rewilding at the event, tapped into a rare deposit of that stuff called hope. Remember that? Ecologists don’t use it often anymore – you’re more likely to find it in an iPhone 5 advert – but when they do it looks warm and fuzzy and delicate.

Hope is a key driver of the rewilding movement. But what is rewilding? The dotted red line under the word as I type reminds me that not so long ago it wasn’t even part of my vocabulary. Now, talk long enough to me and you’re guaranteed to hear the word put into fairly enthusiastic action. The Oxford English dictionary defines rewilding as to ‘restore (an area of land) to its natural uncultivated state’. This, in blanket terms, means leaving a piece of land alone, and letting nature get on with it. That includes the growth of trees, reintroduction of animals and the general increase of biodiversity in an area. In some cases, humans can give rewilding a gentle prod – for instance, in the reintroduction of animals to island nations, such as wild boar or beavers. I was first exposed to the notion of rewilding in George Monbiot’s Feral. Before I go on, I cannot recommend this book enough. It honestly changed my entire outlook on life. Read it.

I bring up Feral, because I believe it may be treated as a beginner’s guide to facing the future with a positive outlook. In Feral, Monbiot explores his sometime frustration in the humdrum, workaday life, and looks at rewilding as a possible alternative, and furthermore, an answer to certain environmental concerns. It is a book crammed with optimism and, I admit, its share of idealism. The Visions for Change lecture was equally hopeful, and I challenge any of the attendees to feel unmoved afterwards.

George Square lecture theatre was buzzing with anticipation prior to the talks by Monbiot and Featherstone. A photographer shifted a tripod around and snapped a notably smiley crowd. The seats filled up quickly; in fact, before I arrived, I ran into a friend who couldn’t believe I’d bagged a spot at the talk. There was a waiting list. Apparently, gone are the days of marginalised environmentalists – in Edinburgh at any rate. Janet Fisher kick-started proceedings by introducing the event, and laid out the evening: a 25 minute talk by George Monbiot, followed by one by Alan Featherstone; then a 15 minute panel discussion and finally, an audience question-and-answers session.

Although it was essentially a rehash of Feral, and a talk I attended earlier by him at Wordpower Books, George Monbiot’s speech was impressive. He sported no notes or prompts throughout his talk. He barely hesitated at any point. He injected verve and vim at all the right junctures. I could only imagine how many hours in front of the mirror this had taken. George Monbiot could be a politician. And not because he’s a compulsive liar – that I couldn’t possibly comment on – but because his speech stirred in the audience a sense of can-do that Obama would be proud of. He launched his talk with a description of the experience that lead him to look into the rewilding movement. Out in his kayak in Cardigan Bay in Wales, Monbiot was startled by the sudden appearance of a dolphin that, in true Free Willy fashion, leapt over his boat. Like a magician or puppeteer, Monbiot stood there on the stage of George Square Lecture Theatre and raised his arm, drawing the arc of the dolphin above his head. Apparently, as he gazed up at the dolphin, their eyes met. The transfixed audience could only offer a muted laugh of disbelief. We were putty in his hands.

It is the pure joy that such a sight inspires that encouraged George Monbiot to pursue rewilding. Monbiot set out his stall pretty clearly: for him, rewilding is not just the mass restoration of eco-systems. It is the rewilding of human life, a remove from our high-rise offices back towards a more dangerous, predator-studded lifestyle we might have faced before the Ice Age.  In an attempt to escape the kind of lifestyle in which a ‘packet of nuts’ is the greatest challenge, Monbiot described how he moved to Wales for an escape from his ‘ecological boredom’. There, in the Cambrian Mountains, he explained, he faced an environment even bleaker than the city he had left.

He makes a good point. Most of us have seen moorland, rocky peninsulas or mountains. For instance, the Highlands are a renowned area of natural beauty. Their boggy, treeless landscape suits the description of the area all of us in the British Isles have grown up familiar with. It’s the archetypal romantic landscape: windswept and barren, the kind that one might find Heathcliff stumbling over in the dead of night. But, as Monbiot pointed out in the lecture and his book Feral, the Highlands are just one of many ‘nature reserves’ that are in fact ecological disasters. In the lecture, Monbiot spoke about the Cambrian nature reserve in Wales: bereft of vascular plants, other than grass, and offering on a single walk only two carrion crows and sheep for fauna, he is justified in referring to the area as a ‘wet desert’, similar to the state of the Highlands. Why? Monbiot pointed an impassioned finger at estate owners in Scotland, using cut-and-burn techniques to artificially maintain ideal hunting conditions and sustain the deer and grouse population for ‘plonkers in tweed pantaloons to shoot Highland chickens’. The applause was loud. Implicated, too, were the Common Agricultural Policy, the stranglehold that the Farmers’ Union has over rural land, and the misguided policies of conservationists, among others.

But really, Monbiot was pointing the finger at us – the general public. ‘Why?’ he repeated, like a mantra. Why do we not ask why the fishing lobby is given so much power? Why do we fetishize dull heather moorland and preserve the ‘indicative species’ to the detriment of biodiversity? And, after mentioning the 1776 account by Goldsmith of a visible body of herring that swam down the coast of Britain, ‘divided into columns’ it was so huge, and the megafauna (large animals) that used to populate Europe, he asked ‘why this and not that?’ In short, why do we put up with our ecological boredom? What we need, Monbiot claimed, to bring this sort of change about – the sort of change that could provide a portal into an entirely different world, a world where nature gets a say – is hope. He looked up at us on the word hope. The audience was silent. I don’t think I was alone in feeling slightly guilty: I’ve resigned the Earth to an ecologically bankrupt future, and the polar bears to ultimate extinction. I’ve watched nature documentaries basically crying for help, and then pressed the off switch after the requisite forty minutes. Monbiot drove home the reality of what we have versus what we could have. But he also drove home the possibility of a different future for humanity: as he said, hope is a commodity, and an ounce of hope is worth a tonne of despair.

Alan Featherstone was next up. Quieter and more pensive in his demeanour, I instantly fell in love with the man. Featherstone is the brainchild behind the Trees for Life conservation charity, and struck me, with his small frame, white beard and ponytailed hair to be an approachable, but sharp and wise man. Trees for Life is a volunteer-based foundation with the vision of re-establishing the ancient Caledonian Forest in the Highlands, and ultimately, the related biodiversity. This aim is no small feat, with a lack of sympathetic landowners (with exception of course), and the conservation guidelines of Scottish Natural Heritage getting in the way of progress.

But firstly, Alan established his motivation for establishing Trees for Life, which essentially is a project in rewilding. He started his talk by focusing on the macrocosmic view of the Earth’s environment. On the wall in his office, he said, one poster had remained for 25 years. It was the photograph of the Earth from Space, the Blue Marble, taken by the Apollo 17 crew back in 1972. A lot of people look at this image, and see the feats of human technology. However, Alan Featherstone saw ‘a call for help’ sellotaped to his office wall. In the photo, most of the surface of the Earth is brownish desert. It wasn’t always like that, he pointed out: modern-day Iraq used to be known as the ‘fertile crescent’. It is now desert. The passenger pigeon, one of the world’s most prolific birds in its time, numbering up to 5 billion when Europeans first colonised North America, went extinct in 1914. The Pyrenean ibex went extinct in 2000. In the last 40 years, 50% of the Earth’s wildlife has been lost.

So far, so grim. But Featherstone was just getting started. On a more local level, things looked equally negative. South Venezuela, he pointed out, looks like Strathfarrar in the Highlands: a wasteland, with only the skeleton of a dying tree indicating any kind of life. Featherstone, like Monbiot before him, highlighted that the Highlands used to be forested, prior to land management. Most of the forests have been lost, however, and the species that relied on those habitats depleted. The land has been ‘managed’ within an inch of its life, with muir (moor) burning and the extraction of rotting logs destroying habitats for fungus, insects, birds and so on. In a particularly evocative comparison, Featherstone likened the peat hags typical of the moonscape of the Highlands, to graveyards. George Monbiot earlier posed the question: what would Amazonian conservationists have to say about burning down trees in the name of ecological land management? The very idea is ridiculous.

But are we trying to turn back the clock to an era long-gone? Featherstone claimed no, it’s not even a question of turning back the clock. It’s a matter of restarting it. At the moment, a lot of the Highlands is in a state of ecological stasis. A survey of rowans grown in the Highlands between 1992 and 2002, with full exposure to deer, not only demonstrates slow growth, but in fact negative growth. By comparison, Featherstone then showed a photo of a fenced-off ecosystem, thus preventing the entry of deer. One side of the fence showed a young but developing collection of trees, bog myrtle and heather; the other, deer-exposed side, remained barren. Notably, trees self-seed. With a single parent tree, an entire ecosystem can establish itself given half a chance: first come the trees, but after that a wide variety of fauna such as the crested tit, green hairstreak, butterflies, and even beavers and wild boar. Featherstone’s point was clear: this is how the Highlands could be even now, were it not for the fact that we artificially sustain high deer populations. Forestry isn’t some out-dated tradition that no longer applies.

Nor is wildlife. Last weekend, while working on our vegetable patch, my friend and I were followed around by a robin. The charismatic robin is well known to any gardener, but it’s a little known fact that the modern human gardener is the robin’s replacement for the now uncommon wild boar. Alan Featherstone noted the beneficial soil disturbance that wild boar create, revealing worms to hungry red breasted birds, but also making the soil more suitable for the growth of, say, Scots pine. This, he said, was seen in Dundreggan. The fickle robins realigned themselves with the boars within 24 hours of their introduction. And, worrying though wild boar may sound, along with other animals such as the lynx, bear or wolf, Featherstone controversially believes that their reintroduction would be wholly beneficial for the environment. In the lecture, he argued that areas such as the Highlands are missing their top predators, or keystone species, which, like the boar, help to re-establish a functioning eco-system. Monbiot calls it a trophic cascade: a trickle-down of benefits to species in an ecosystem, starting with the top predator. Top predators, according to Featherstone, would keep deer populations, for example, in check, thus opening up the possibilities of forested land, and therefore the resulting biodiversity. I didn’t need convincing. For evidence, one need look no further than the popular reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in the USA. There, the wolves reshaped not only the ecosystem, but the flow of the river.

But Alan Featherstone didn’t pack nature’s future into a vacuum-sealed bag, not to be touched by humans. Instead he refreshingly incorporated humankind into the fate of nature. Let nature do the work, he advised, sure, but let’s not separate ourselves from it. Indeed, he remarked on the positive changes in people that result from a connection with the natural world – the realisation of our own power, when we plant something and see the results; its ability to heal us; its ability to give us a sense of place; its ability to connect us with one another; and its ability to instil hope. And he’s got a place on the political agenda in Scotland, too. Featherstone is calling the Scottish government to take more steps towards rewilding, and the trial reintroduction of beavers into the Argyll River is set to yield results and an ultimate decision next year. Featherstone ended his speech on a note of urgency, but also boundless optimism: now’s the time to do something, he said, and we can all help out in some way. Finally, following on from that picture of the Blue Marble, what did Alan Featherstone think about our probes around Mars, and the potential to wild a new planet? Earth’s ‘our home’ – why focus on Mars when we’re losing our planet, he asked.  The applause went on for quite some time.

Following an informative set question-and-answer session, in which some of the complications of rewilding were explored – including the apparent conflict between feeding over 7 billion people and freeing up land for wildlife (Featherstone suggested that the Western, meat-based diet was unsustainable, to much vegan approval in the audience) – the audience were asked some of their own questions. A highlight of this part for me was a question about ‘natural capital’, and whether it opposes rewilding. Natural capital is basically, as George Monbiot explained, the monetary valuing of nature. The very notion of putting a value on nature is absurd in my opinion – and in Monbiot’s, as well, who compared it to the famous calculation of the meaning of life in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. However, it interestingly points at a larger problem, perhaps, than grassroots movements such as rewilding can tackle. Not only does it demonstrate the power dynamic of our governments, which are run like, and for, big business; but it suggests an inherent evaluation system that humans have, and an apparent need to catalogue and colonise.  Ecology is a subset of economy. Rewilding is not objective-driven, so how can it appeal to a society that is? Alan Featherstone put it like this: right now, humans have a choice. We can be the next ‘meteorite’ to wipe out an entire species on a massive scale, and foreclose our options for later ecological development. Or we can overcome our desire to ‘conquer’. It’s a question of whether we’re ready to let go or not.  The audience seemed ready to let go there and then, but alas the audience don’t represent the wider population. Scarily, the battle for nature must first be won by conquering our own human nature.
And yet, somehow the tone remained hopeful and the audience in good spirits by the end of the talk. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, and I couldn’t help but agree: I felt inspired. I still do.

Hope. It’s a funny thing. Plant a seed, and you could end up with a forest.

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