One of the responses to climate change and environmental destruction that gets some of the most consistent media attention is the idea of “rewilding.”
Often this is due to headline-grabbing stories about re-introducing wolves and lynxes to the British countryside. But it’s also about creating wild, uncultivated areas of land, seen as a way of preventing the extinction of plants that are vital to for human survival.
“It’s about letting nature take care of itself, enabling natural processes to shape land and sea, repair damaged ecosystems and restore degraded landscapes,” says the charity rewilding Europe.
But often the thinking behind rewilding can lead to some reactionary solutions.
Some rewilding advocates argue that humans are inherently exploitative—that our impact on the environment is inevitably destructive—and we should relocate away from biodiverse areas.
One recent argument blames the rise of “staycations” during the pandemic for environmental destruction.
They say areas of natural beauty, such as the Lake District, have been overwhelmed by coachloads of people.
The danger is that this leads to a conclusion that denies people’s ability to escape the cities and access the countryside. This is a right hard fought for by working class campaigns to open up the land.
We should be wary of arguments that can give rich landowners more powers to restrict our access once more.
Instead of treating people as a problem, it’s better to look at how we can restore a sustainable relationship between humans and the rest of nature.
It’s not true that human society is inevitably destructive.
Human society has always shaped the environment around it. But for most of human history, people have done this in a way that was sustainable.
Agriculture has existed for tens of thousands of years, and it’s true that this altered the environment. But people knew that their survival rested on methods of farming that preserved the land—crop rotation and so on. This benefited not just humans, but entire ecosystems.
The problem came with the development of capitalism.
Under capitalism, nature is seen as a resource for capitalists to commodify and turn a profit.
It’s surely possible to build a new society that provides for everyone without destroying the environment
Britain has seen huge amounts of deforestation, quarrying, hunting animals to extinction and the introduction of farmland monocultures.
Rewilding can undo some of the damage done by capitalism, such as by planting more trees of various species.
Recently hundreds of beavers were reintroduced to Scotland in an attempt to limit floods and restore ecosystems. All of this is undoubtedly good.
But rewilding can also allow destructive practices to continue in other areas—and even complement them.
One rewilding strategy includes grading natural spaces on their profitability. “Unsuccessful land”—or land that does not produce a high crop yield—is targeted for rewilding and left to grow wild.
The profitable land is presumably left to huge industrial farming complexes.
Without taking on exploitative practices—such as oil exploration, big agribusiness and deforestation—directly, rewilding can’t restore the environment on a large scale.
Instead we have to think about more radical solutions to restore a sustainable relationship between humans and the rest of the environment.
We can be encouraged that human society has done this in the past. It’s surely possible to build a new society that provides for everyone without destroying the environment.
But doing that means a break from capitalism, where humans’ relationship to the rest of the environment is based on exploitation for profit.
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