March 6, 2023 | By:

‘Rewilding’ Ambiguity 3: Counterparts in Name Only

Previously in the “Take Back Rewilding” series, I argued that the word ‘rewilding’ is associated with different conceptual prototypes in North America and Europe, and I described my observations as a long-term visitor in Denmark that led me to this conclusion for myself. 

Due to its name, the organisation Rewilding Europe is the group that Americans are most likely to associate with rewilding in Europe. In this final post about the semantics of ‘rewilding’ (although far from the last in the series!), I will argue that Rewilding Europe also uses the word in its predominant European sense in which naturalistic grazing is the canonical practice (§1). I will conclude with some summary points about the claim that the word ‘rewilding’ should be thought of as transatlantically ambiguous (§2). 

Conservation grazing to maintain a pastoral landscape in North Zealand, Denmark (photo: author)

Conservation grazing to maintain a pastoral landscape in North Zealand, Denmark (Photo: Kate McFarland)

1. Refarming Europe

I have often tried to think charitably about what – aside from wishful thinking – might persuade thoughtful and intelligent American rewilding proponents that European “rewilding” is cut from the same cloth as their own movement. I presume that, for many or most, the organisation Rewilding Europe is the entry point to learning about rewilding in Europe. After all, considering the name, it would appear the obvious place to start if one lacked antecedent reason to believe that ‘rewilding’ is ambiguous. Now, I suppose I can see how motivational bias combined with a cursory skim of could lead one to conclude that rewilding in Europe indeed is closely analogous to rewilding in North America. Despite a prominent emphasis on grazing and its favourite large herbivores, Rewilding Europe also promotes a variety of other conservation and restoration projects, including much that will sit comfortably with an American audience, such as dam removal, coexistence with carnivores, and partnerships with a few bird-related organisations (let us not forget that migratory bird flyways were one of the earliest recognised types of habitat corridors within the US conservation movement). Furthermore, in describing the organisation’s vision of Wilder Nature, the website’s authors mention not only herbivore grazing but also predation, forest regeneration, and natural fires and flooding. Without a deeper dive into the organisation’s actual work, one might presume that natural grazing is just one small piece of a larger picture that, overall, looks a lot like North American rewilding. 

But one needn’t dive deep at all to see that at its core Rewilding Europe reiterates and entrenches the association of ‘rewilding’ with naturalistic grazing and the maintenance of open landscapes through the introduction of large herbivores, including “de-domesticated” breeds of cows and horses meant to roleplay extinct Pleistocene fauna. This is manifested, for example, in the predominance of grazing-related material under the organisation’s Publications – including its megaherbivore-exclusive species publications, the grazing focus of its practical guides, the cringe-worthily titled Herbiforests brochure (which details what Rewilding Europe actually means when it speaks of “forest regeneration”), and four other publications on GrazeLIFE, an EU-funded programme to support “extensive grazing by large herbivores” (with an absence of any complementary publications on carnivores). 

Naturalistic grazing is the cornerstone of the majority of Rewilding Europe’s nine project areas, and even the organisation’s purported carnivore reintroduction efforts amount to, well, grazing; for example, the Return of the Lynx donation page explains, “Rewilding Europe supports the comeback of both species [of lynx] by creating more wild nature through natural grazing, which favours the conditions for prey species like the rabbit.” The foundation even loans out large herbivores through its European Livestock Bank – I mean, European Wildlife Bank. Meanwhile, to date, I have yet to see Rewilding Europe propose carnivore reintroduction as a means to prevent overgrazing by the investment property.

Mark Fisher, whose position I defended previously, often refers to Rewilding Europe pejoratively as Refarming Europe; however, this is really more clarificatory than pejorative, given that Rewilding Europe itself has been upfront that its raison d’être is to restore farming-like pressure to prevent the afforestation of abandoned farmland. In describing the foundation’s history, cofounder and director Frans Schepers and then soon-to-be board member Paul Jepson state: 

In 2008, conservationists in the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and Sweden began to explore the conservation opportunities presented by these trends [large-scale land abandonment and wildlife revival]. The group was particularly interested in engaging with the dynamics of large-scale land abandonment of rural areas in Europe. They were concerned that spontaneous reforestation and declines in grazing associated with land abandonment would result in a loss of the rich biodiversity, and that the exodus of skills, experience, and energy from rural areas would undermine opportunities to ‘steer’ these landscapes towards a rewilded future where restored ecological systems supported new nature-based economies (“Rewilding in a European Context,” 2016, International Journal of Wilderness 22:2).

Rewilding Europe continues to make similar declarations on its website: 

Today, with the ongoing trend of land abandonment and rural depopulation resulting in declining livestock numbers in many parts of Europe, there is a growing need and opportunity to return free-roaming wild herbivores (or their close equivalent) to European landscapes (“Amazing Grazing”).

Restoring livestock (“or their close equivalent”), preventing the “spontaneous reforestation” of land cleared for agriculture, reversing an exodus of human activity, and re-employing human labour in “steering rural landscapes” does indeed constitute something closely akin to refarming – and this is all just what the organisation openly says it does.  

The reader might already notice a significant disanalogy between this focal work of Rewilding Europe and another prominent case study in the North American rewilding tradition: spontaneous forest regeneration in New England following the abandonment of farmland. In North American literature, this is presented as an inspiring success. As the Northeast Wilderness Trust’s Jon Leibowitz put it in a contribution to Rewilding Earth

The Northeast is witness to one of the great ecological recoveries of the past century. Upon European arrival … Vermont, like much of the region, was largely cleared of natural forest cover in a race for timber and farmland. […] Our home has made a miraculous recovery due to the resiliency of the landscape coupled in-part with the mass abandonment of farms at the turn of last century (“Rewilding Is Not an Exotic Idea,” December 2020).

Granted, the contexts differ, and what Nature wants for New England is not necessarily what Nature wants for Europe. I will return to some issues in this vicinity in later instalments. But, for now, we may add these dissimilar cases to our catalogue of conceptual prototypes. In the North American ‘rewilding’ discourse, the spontaneous reforestation of abandoned farmland is accepted as an example of rewilding, if a passive one. In Europe, the most prominent “rewilding” projects are expressly meant to prevent the same, by re-intervening in areas where humans have already stepped back.  

Velebit Mountains

Velebit Mountains (distance), one project area in which Rewilding Europe is working to combat the “threat” of rural land abandonment. (Photo: Kate McFarland)

To be sure, Rewilding Europe’s claim is not that farm-like landscapes should be maintained merely for cultural preference or historical preservation but that (a) a substantial portion of Europe’s biodiversity is dependent on grazing animals (whether wild or domestic) and (b) the pre-agrarian baseline conditions were ones in which large herbivores grazed the land in a way something like livestock husbandry. In this picture, animal agriculture wasn’t the ecological disaster that it’s often presumed to be, but the saving grace that mitigated wholesale biodiversity collapse in the wake of the Pleistocene megafauna extinctions.

However, the purported effects on biodiversity are empirical claims demanding scrutiny, and for some rewilding sympathisers [raises hand], there may also be ethical concerns surrounding the interventionism of either “refarming” or attempting to simulate the Pleistocene; I will come back to these ecological and ethical worries later in this series. For now, I wish only to stress that no North American rewilding proponent should be forced to assent to Rewilding Europe’s practices as a matter of semantic entailment. One must be able to express affirmation of ‘rewilding’ in the North American sense at the same time as rejection of ‘rewilding’ in the European sense – or vice versa. To treat the uses of the word as semantically equivalent is to elide significant differences in practice, theory, and context.

Yes, it is also true that Rewilding Europe does promote dam removal and other practices that neatly intersect with the North American concept of rewilding. And there’s no linguistic reason that European speakers shouldn’t or wouldn’t stretch their own concept of ‘rewilding’ to encompass more than naturalistic grazing; language is flexible like that. However, this doesn’t imply that the respective uses of ‘rewilding’ are synonymous any more than ‘flying creature’ should be considered synonymous with ‘mammal’ due to the fact that certain mammals happen also to exemplify flight – for it doesn’t change the fact that the central paradigmatic cases of the European sense of ‘rewilding’ are at best peripheral cases of North American sense of ‘rewilding’ (if they are to be deemed instances of the concept at all).

Once we acknowledge the linguistic ambiguity, we can roughly translate ‘Rewilding Europe’ as ‘Naturalistic Grazing Europe’ and realise that there’s no semantic reason to assume that this organisation is in league with TRI. They are both conservation organisations, to be sure, but it is well known that not all conservation organisations share the values and motives as TRI and its precursors (see, e.g., Dave Foreman’s excellent 2012 book Take Back Conservation – for which this series was named). Indeed, as I will elaborate in a future instalment, Rewilding Europe and many other European “rewilders” should not be direct counterparts or allies for an even deeper reason: they do not share the essential biocentric or ecocentric moral foundation that has characterised the North American rewilding movement since its inception. Later, I’ll argue that “refarming” cannot be defended in terms of the ethical principles outlined in my “prologue” to this series. For now, as one final significant disanalogy between TRI and Rewilding Europe, note that leaders of the latter have outright rejected our governing ecocentric principles and commitment to self-willed Nature for its own sake:  

 [I]n North America, ecocentric worldviews influence the study and practice of conservation biology, restoration ecology and rewilding. These worldviews foreground the intrinsic value of nature […]. By contrast, the version of rewilding we promote in Europe expresses worldviews identifiable with utilitarianism and pragmatic realism. […] [T]his pragmatic realist worldview […] views nature as a dynamic force that can be restored and embraced to help solve modern socio-economic issues (Paul Jepson, Frans Schepers, and Wouter Helmer, 2018, “Governing with nature: a European perspective on putting rewilding principles into practice,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 373).

2. Semantic Speciation?

Even if the North American and European uses of ‘rewilding’ have a common ancestor, in some sense, we should now have more than enough examples and disanalogies to prove that they have taken on their own meanings that are distinct and non-synonymous.

Following Mark Fisher’s discussion of rewilding drift in Europe, I believe that semantic drift is an apt descriptor of the linguistic history of ‘rewilding’ in Europe. However, readers who prefer biology might think of it as semantic speciation. The first writers to apply the term to Oostvaardersplassen or other nature development projects might have heard from speakers who’d picked it up directly from the North American lineage. These first uses of ‘rewilding’ in the Dutch context became the most profligate founder population on the European continent. As it happened, these founding word uses also possessed some distinct mutations that they passed on to their progeny – including the associations with naturalistic grazing, taxon substitutions, the non-necessity of carnivores, devotion to Frans Vera’s wood pasture hypothesis, etc – and that are not shared with its ancestral lineage in North America, which itself never evolved these traits. Today, the two continentally divergent species of ‘rewilding’ cannot mate and produce viable offspring. 

Okay, so the analogy isn’t perfect, but the point is that word meanings can drift apart just as populations of once-interbreeding animals can, and they can evolve in disparate and ultimately irreconcilable ways. It would appear that just this has happened with the importation of the term ‘rewilding’ to Europe, and it is a fool’s errand to force the two divergent meanings to reconcile into a single population. Although the time spans differ, well-known examples of semantic drift might help to illustrate the ludicrousness of forcing a univocal meaning on a word that has drifted from its original meaning. Consider, say, ‘decimate’. Famously, the original meaning of the word ‘decimate’ was ‘to reduce by one tenth.’ Suppose a lexicographer attempted to provide a single definition to unite the original meaning of ‘decimate’ with its shifted one. What could she do? One option might be to provide a disjunctive definition (“to ‘decimate’ means to reduce either by one tenth or nearly totally”). Another option would be to contrive a definition vague enough to encompass both meanings (e.g. “to ‘decimate’ means to reduce”). No one would do this with a term like ‘decimate’ – yet it happens with ‘rewilding.’   

Or, for another analogy, consider a different case of a transatlantic linguistic import: European colonists used the word ‘robin’ to refer to the thrush Turdus migratorius (family Turdidae). T. migratorius was so-called due to sharing one superficial characteristic – its red breast – with its Old World non-counterpart, the Old World flycatcher Erithacus rubecula (family Muscicapidae). In fact, though, the American robin is much more closely related to the Eurasian blackbird, song thrush, or redwing. The European robin is the only extant in its genus, and other members of Muscicapidae are also restricted to the Old World. It would seem weirdly disjunctive to publish a scientific book about “robins” or form a global alliance for “robin conservation” devoted to E. rubecula plus one of many species of unrelated thrushes. Americans and Europeans both use the word ‘robin’ to refer to species of bird, but this fact does not imply that the two respective species of birds should be treated as equivalent or as counterparts in the context of science or conservation. Analogously, there might be some surface similarities in the rhetoric behind the North American and European families of “rewilding,” but in their underlying ecological, implementational, and moral assumptions, they are as dissimilar as Turdidae and Muscicapidae. 

Juxtaposition of the European and American Robin

Juxtaposition of the European and American Robin (Photos: Kate McFarland)

When philosopher Jozef Keulartz states that “[w]hereas North American rewilders have emphasized the role of predation by large carnivores, Dutch and, subsequently, European rewilders have focused on naturalistic grazing by large herbivores” (in “Philosophical Boundary Work for Wildlife Conservation,” 2020, A Guide to Field Philosophy), it sounds to my ears roughly tantamount to saying, “whereas North American biscuit-makers have emphasized breakfast food covered in gravy, British and, subsequently, European biscuit-makers have emphasised sweets to be consumed alongside tea.” There is no dispute on the history and common use of the term ‘rewilding’ in Europe. The curiosity is why so few commentators stop to ask whether ‘rewilding’ might be a plain ol’ ambiguous term.

It is important to disentangle this semantic point from the ecological and ethical criticisms of rewilding in Europe that have also been put forth by those like Fisher. The former is a descriptive claim about word usage: North American and European speakers tend to use the word ‘rewilding’ to express different concepts. This is a point about how speakers actually use a certain word, not a normative claim about whether any particular concept called ‘rewilding’ should or should not be implemented. The latter is a matter not for semantics but for ecology and ethics. However, recognising this semantic ambiguity in ‘rewilding’ helps to clarify a distinction that does correspond to substantive ecological and ethical disagreements – which, in turn, have significant ramifications for practical action. 

It is to these ecological and ethical disagreements that I will turn in the next instalments of the “Take Back Rewilding” series. 

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Jeff Hoffman
1 year ago

In discussing the oppositional attitudes of rewilding advocates in the U.S. and those in Europe regarding spontaneous forest regeneration, Kate McFarland makes the following equivocating comment: “Granted, the contexts differ, and what Nature wants for New England is not necessarily what Nature wants for Europe.” This seems to imply that in Europe, forests were not native, so that once agricultural humans abandon the land, they would not regenerate. This is not at all true. The majority of the terrestrial land on Earth was forest before humans started killing trees, and if you consider that part of that calculation includes the Arctic and Antarctic, that means the large majority of terrestrial land aside from those two areas. So of course nature would want the land in Europe to be reforested, as it once was and should be again.

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