January 10, 2023 | By:

“Take Back Rewilding” Prologue

rewilding north americaLike many, I became enthralled by the North American rewilding movement due to Dave Foreman’s classic 2004 book Rewilding North America. I was a relative latecomer, discovering Foreman’s work in 2020 as a dilettante in ecological ethics. 

The context was this: I’d recently been unexpectedly hired as the associate director of an ethics centre at a major university. It was not a research position, and I am not an ethicist by training. However, I am a philosopher, and being naturally inclined to philosophical enquiry, I was inspired to join the fun of thinking about moral philosophy. At the time, experiences of nature and wildlife (read: birds) had become exceedingly important as part of my daily living, and I’d been rekindling a long-suppressed hankering for the natural sciences. Thus, my natural disposition was to think specifically about environmental ethics, especially from a non-anthropocentric perspective, which always seemed like the obvious default position. 

I would become particularly engrossed by the ecological holism and aesthetic themes of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and … and, well, I guess at first I mostly just thought that Leopold was the sh*t, and I became a bit distrustful of career philosophers who wrote about environmental ethics. Nevertheless, as philosophers are disposed to do, I began to sketch my own ideas about what my starting point would be if I were to defend my own position in ecological ethics. The thought I couldn’t shake – and, to this day, still can’t – was that naturally unfolding evolutionary processes are the fundamental bearer of value and that this motivates the demand to protect large areas of self-governed land (and sea) from our meddling and control. In this way, wilderness protection is a means to express our respect and reverence for the autonomous and non-teleological nature of evolution. Evolution should, in other words, be respected as sacred – not defiled and desecrated by the imposition of human control on every square inch of the Earth. In future installments of this series, I will develop these ideas, and I will contrast this ethical perspective with that presupposed by some other projects that brand themselves as ‘rewilding’ (especially in the European context). For now, though, I wish to note these moral intuitions as what drew me to the rewilding movement in the first place. 

During the course of my environmental ethics self-study, I was heartened and amazed to find an author defending – or, even better, presupposing – something very much like my own intuitive thoughts on ecocentric ethics: the author was Dave Foreman, and the book was Rewilding North America. I’d picked up a copy of the book expecting interesting conservation proposals but not necessarily philosophical depth, let alone the expression of ethical positions so congenial to my own emerging views: evolutionary processes are among the intrinsically valuable elements of nature, and it is our duty to preserve them; it is appropriate to regard nature’s autonomous, self-directed creative processes with humility, and respect, and we manifest this respect in part by allowing nature space to carry on without our intrusion; the protection of large wilderness areas is important because they provide the space needed for the continuation of organically unfolding evolutionary processes. 

I was intrigued, first off, by the unusual degree of emphasis that Foreman gave to the importance of safeguarding Nature’s capacity for evolution and speciation, where by ‘unusual degree’ I mean the fact that he emphasised it at all. In these passages, Foreman often cited Michael Soulé, who had included “Evolution is good” as one of his normative postulates of conservation biology in his influential 1985 article, “What is Conservation Biology?” This insight was augmented by Foreman’s frequent reminders that ‘wilderness’ means self-willed land. Far from a mere etymological factoid, this definition is philosophically illuminating, for this redescription of the concept of wilderness immediately addresses hackneyed complaints against the concept’s coherence – that humans are part of nature, that what we think of as “pristine” was actually shaped by the activities of Indigenous peoples, that nothing can any long be pristine in the Anthropocene, and so on. When we think of wilderness as self-willed land, we can see that such complaints are beside the point, for we do have a conception of respect for autonomy, and thus we can have a conception of respecting self-willed land as such. Humans are part of nature, but so what? We can make the deliberate choice to allow other parts to persist without our active interference in their activity, where these other parts include not only “self-willed beasts” but also large landscapes in which the same evolutionary processes that created us can continue to play themselves out.   

The final paragraph of Rewilding North America encapsulates many of its central inspiring moral themes, which also include an emphasis on the virtues of humility and restraint: 

Wilderness and wildlife, both as natural realities and as philosophical ideas, are fundamentally about human humility and restraint. Remember that in Old English wil-der-ness means self-willed land and wildeor means self-willed beast. Our war on nature comes from trying to impose our will over the whole Earth. To develop and practice a land ethic, we must hold dear both wil-der-ness and the wildeor. Only by making the moral leap to embrace, celebrate, love, and restore self-willed nature can we stop the war on nature and save ourselves. […] [I]t is only by rewilding and healing the ecological wounds of the land that we can learn humility and respect; that we can come home, at last. And that the grand dance of life will sashay on in all its beauty, integrity, and evolutionary potential. (p. 229) 

And, so, it was precisely this underlying moral perspective that drew me to the North American rewilding movement. In a world in which conservation is consumed by politics, economics, and pandering to human interests, what I appreciated more than anything was the discovery of an approach to conservation that began with a staunchly ecocentric moral foundation and then proceeded by way of science, asking first “What is morally right?” and secondly “What must we do, ecologically speaking, to pursue what is right?” 

I read Rewilding North America in 2020, during the COVID-19 lockdown. The following summer, international borders reopened, and I left my home in Ohio to pursue a long-standing ambition of car-free, active-transportation-based rural living – a lifestyle that is much easier to obtain in Europe than in the United States. Now, in principle, there should be no conflict between the accessibility of active-transportation-based rural living and the presence of a strong movement to conserve wilderness and wildlands for wild Nature’s own sake. After all, it was Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Walking” (not “Driving”) that begins: “I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness […]. I wish to make an extreme statement, if so I may make an emphatic one, for there are enough champions of civilization.”

In Europe, however, I discovered more than my desired lifestyle. I also learned that the word ‘rewilding’ is systematically used to refer to a different practice – naturalistic grazing – that not only differs superficially from the “3Cs” and continental-scale conservation but also, as it has been framed and promoted by organisations like Rewilding Europe, lacks the firm ecocentric moral foundations that were entrenched in the North American rewilding movement, exemplified by the journal Wild Earth and now upheld in the vision statement of The Rewilding Institute. In future instalments of this series, I will explore apparent ecological and ethical discrepancies between the North American and European “rewilding” movements. To begin, though, I will return to my roots in philosophy of language to make a semantic claim: the word ‘rewilding’ simply means something different in the North American and European traditions. (I should note that these are not novel observations. Indeed, Mark Fisher has made many similar points in a previous Rewilding Earth article; see “Drifting from Rewilding,” 2019.)

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)

A consequence, for me, is that I can’t say whether or not I support rewilding. I have lately been honoured to be appointed to the Board of The Rewilding Institute, and when I speak with my colleagues at TRI, I will of course unhesitatingly say that I support rewilding. Yet I live primarily in Europe, where I am loath to express my support for “rewilding,” since I believe that many of the naturalistic grazing projects that occur under the banner are uninspiring at best and, at worst, fundamentally misguided both ecologically and ethically. It is not that I am truthful in America but not in Europe or vice versa; it’s that I realise that the sentence “I support rewilding” is likely to be interpreted as entailing different things in the respective contexts. It would be a bit ridiculous to assume that my enthusiastic support for Foreman’s vision expressed in Rewilding North America entails that I will support naturalistic grazing as soon as I cross the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. It is a divergent boundary, after all, and my claim is that the meaning of ‘rewilding’ also diverges between the continents. Once we accept the semantic ambiguity, those of us in the North American tradition can see more clearly that the “naturalistic grazing” practices generally called ‘rewilding’ in Europe are not only something different from “our” rewilding but also worth critiquing on both ecological and ethical grounds.

In September 2022, I returned to Ohio for a brief visit, and one of my objectives was to dig up my copy of Rewilding North America to remind myself why I’d been so inspired by this thing called ‘rewilding’ prior to my self-exile abroad. I recall that, on the evening of the 19th, I was staying at a friend’s house, and forcing her to endure my effusive praise for Foreman and his neglected contributions to ecological ethics. (Fortunately for my friend, she had a glass of wine; unfortunately for her, so did I.) An hour or so later, I’d retired to my guestroom, and for whatever reason I opened that deuced website called Twitter. Surprisingly, the first item in my newsfeed was not a bird photograph but an announcement from The Rewilding Institute, and I will never forget how shocked and gutted I felt in that instant: “We are deeply saddened to report that Dave Foreman passed away this evening…”  

In the inaugural episode of the Rewilding Earth Podcast, Foreman expressed his desire that The Rewilding Institute “stand foursquare for the fundamental concept of rewilding” in the face of transformations in its meaning (“Dave Foreman On The History and Definition of Rewilding”). I hope that my subsequent reflections on the perversion of the use of the word ‘rewilding’ in Europe, and the need to reclaim the movement’s ethical and ecological foundation – whatever word is used for it – can do something to contribute to his legacy and enormous contributions, as well as his wish for TRI to uphold the original vision of rewilding. 

The author at Iceland's Þingvellir National Park, site of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge: "It is symbolic of my position in the rewilding world – straddling the divide between North America and Europe."

The author at Iceland’s Þingvellir National Park, site of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge: “It is symbolic of my position in the rewilding world – straddling the divide between North America and Europe.”

I am a newcomer to the rewilding movement, and of course I don’t claim to offer the final word on it. I expect and welcome contrary views on the projects and traditions that I will criticise – especially from those who agree with the starting point of the basic moral intuitions as sketched above. I mean only to open the door to conversations that need to be had: to fail to acknowledge the semantic ambiguity in ‘rewilding’ is to ignore substantive disagreements in ecology, ethics, and practice that correspond to this divergence in meaning. 

Most of the content of the “Take Back Rewilding” series is drawn from writings previously published on my website. Read the next post in this series: “Take Back Rewilding: ‘Rewilding’ Ambiguity.”

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