We live in an age of mass extinctions and increasing degradation of our planet. Rewilding—the return of land to a wild state and the reintroduction of animals and plants that once lived there—is one way we can restore the balance in nature. And in ourselves.
From his home in Oxford, England, Guardian columnist George Monbiot, author of Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea, and Human Life, talks about why he refuses to fly, how the reintroduction of beavers in Scotland is transforming the environment, and why he hates sheep.
When we first met at the Hay Festival in Wales, you had been invited to speak at a sustainable studies event in New York, but you refused to fly there because of air travel's heavy carbon footprint. Are you still committed to living a zero-carbon life?
I'd love to live a zero-carbon life, but I'm afraid it's quite a long way from that. Even when you make a really big effort to try to cut your emissions down, you're likely to exceed it by quite a lot. We're so locked into the fossil fuel world that without any real change in the infrastructure you can't really reconcile the way we live with what needs to be done to prevent climate breakdown.
The majority of our electricity is still provided by coal and gas. It's also really hard to get around without heavy use of fossil fuels, even by surface transport. Not flying is definitely a step in the right direction. But it's by no means the end of the story.
In this book you present an idea that's new to many of us—rewilding. Can you explain what that means and why it's important for our children and future generations?
"Rewilding" was coined about 20 or 30 years ago, but it first entered the dictionary in 2011. National Geographic is about to air a series called Live Free or Die, about a group of people living out in the woods who call themselves rewilders. Rewilding is one of those words a lot of people seemed to be waiting for. It certainly had that impact on me, because I was becoming increasingly frustrated by living in this very ordered and regulated country. Even conservation areas, which are meant to be set aside for nature, are intensively managed.
I was struggling to identify what was wrong and what I was looking for, and then I came across the word "rewilding," and it exploded in my mind. I've plucked two out of the dozen or so definitions I've come across so far. One is the mass restoration of ecosystems, which means bringing back missing species. The other is the rewilding of our own lives—becoming enchanted once more with the natural world and letting go, for at least some parts of our lives, of that very ordered and controlled life we ordinarily lead.
It appears that our ancestors were wrecking habitat 15,000 years ago and not thinking about us.
There now appears to be evidence that even two million years ago hominins in Africa had devastating impacts on the megafauna there, greatly reducing the populations of large carnivores and large herbivores. We seem to have an innate capacity to cause tremendous damage to the natural world.
Fundamentally, we've escaped from the constraints of natural selection. I think that's more or less the problem. There's nothing capable of controlling our numbers or controlling our impact in the way there always has been with less intelligent species. So we're able to expand without constraint. And we've ended up causing, quite unwittingly, devastating impacts wherever we've gone, because there's nothing to stop us—except of course our own awareness and consciousness, which is something we're struggling to develop.
Are you pessimistic about humanity's future?
That's a question I find very hard to answer. The trend on the whole has been a very bad one. The assault on the natural world has in no way lessened. In fact in some respects it has intensified.
But there are ways in which things have improved, above all our enhanced understanding of psychology and significant improvements in the way we bring up our children in many parts of the world. If children are properly nurtured and brought up in a supportive environment, they're much more open to engagement with what's around them—and more likely to live in a way which isn't damaging others.
One of the ways we're manipulating nature today is through genetic modification—that's sort of the opposite of rewilding, isn't it?
I think that genetic modification is just one aspect of the intensification of agriculture. And there are a number of potential impacts of that. One is that where agriculture is intensifying, wildlife is declining. The U.K., a largely agricultural nation, has lost huge numbers of birds and insects just within my lifetime, principally due to modes of agricultural practices.
Some GM crops are not for feeding people at all but for producing biofuels or feeding animals, which has been the great cause of agricultural expansion around world, rather than a reduction of the agricultural area, which people had predicted.
You've devised a table of the loss of species in the British Isles and the reintroduction of some into their once native habitats. Tell us about that and why it's important.
One of the fascinating recent findings is that natural systems that retain their natural predators and herbivores behave in radically different ways from natural systems that have lost them. When you've lost all your large carnivores and most of your large herbivores, what you're preserving bears very little relationship to an ecosystem in nature. It's much more like a modification of farming. What we ought to be asking is "What could live here?" rather than just "What does live here?"
By bringing back what biologists call keystone species—species that have an impact on other species and are ecological engineers, creating habitats for other species—you kick-start these dynamic ecological processes.
Can you tell us about the beaver and how it's changing the landscape of Scotland through reintroduction?
Where beavers have coevolved with the other wildlife of river systems, they're tremendously useful, because they create habitats that hundreds of other species can use. They create ponds and rippled sections downstream from the ponds. The dams themselves, with their intricate mesh of sticks and mud, are wonderful habitats for large numbers of invertebrates and the animals that live off those invertebrates. They also slow down floods and prevent scouring in the rivers. By coppicing the trees around the rivers, beavers create habitat for bats and other species. The number of wild fowl, ducks, and geese and the size of trout and salmon tend to be much greater where there are beavers. So they generate this cascade of impacts that's already happening in parts of Scotland.
I found it really interesting that you wrote about Scotland in particular and the deforestation that took place after the Battle of Culloden in 1746.
What happened after Culloden is a process we now know as the Highland Clearances, where very large numbers of people were thrown out of their homes and either went abroad, to colonize North America, for example, or to the slums in the big cities.
The land was then taken over, either by sheep ranchers or by sporting estates where people would shoot deer and grouse. Sheep have been almost forgotten as an agent of destruction in the U.K. We now have quite a romantic view of sheep farming. You can't turn on Sunday evening TV without seeing a program on sodding sheep! [Laughs.]
But sheep mow down everything, prevent tree seedlings from growing, and will transform a natural landscape, within a few human generations, into a completely bare one.
If you go to the rest of Europe, the lowlands where the fertile land is are largely bare, which is what you would expect, because that's where the good farmland is. But the uplands are largely forested. In Britain the lowlands are largely bare, but the uplands are almost completely devoid of trees. And that's because of sheep.
My argument is that rewilding those hills and introducing species we don't have creates a whole new industry, which could actually keep hill communities alive much better than sheep farming. We see all over the world people are paying big bucks to go and see fascinating wildlife. Why can't we endorse that?
What species would you like to see reintroduced back into Britain? The saber-toothed cat?
[Laughs.] Most people will not be too distraught to know that the saber-toothed cat will not be reintroduced, largely because it's extinct. The clamor for the lion's reintroduction so far has been muted as well, though we did have lions here until 11,000 years ago and even hyenas.
More realistically, I'd love to see beavers brought back much more widely. So far there have just been two or three places. Wild boars are beginning to reestablish themselves in some places, but that too becomes a matter of policy. Lynxes are a very good candidate. They're very popular with foresters in particular, because we have massive overpopulations of deer, which the lynx specializes in eating. I also hope that we can persuade people in Britain that wolves are an appropriate species to bring back.
Your research took you all over Britain. Were there any high-five moments?
I was out in Cardigan Bay on my kayak, fishing for mackerel but at the same time trying to reconnect with a wilder and rawer and richer life. I was not in tune with anything resembling common sense. There was a ten-foot swell. So it was a very stupid day to go kayaking.
Cardigan Bay is always extremely challenging in a kayak if there's any kind of west wind blowing. This was quite a big wind. I was greatly enjoying the thrill of dropping into these great chasms of waves or riding up a great breaker and sliding down into another chasm, when I realized I had to get back to shore. I was getting cold, I didn't have any food, and the tide had come up and was smashing against the seawall.
I sat about 200 meters [656 feet] offshore thinking, I just don't see any way that I can get in here. I felt terrified. These waves were coming in like steam trains, one after the other, lifting the boat and dropping it. I thought, I'm going to die.
Suddenly I heard this horrendous sound right behind me. I thought it was a giant wave about to break over my head, so I ducked. But nothing happened. I looked all around, and under the shaft of my paddle, this great, gray, hooked fin rose, all scarred and battered and pitted, and then went down again. Then came that great whooshing sound again, and this bottlenose dolphin, 13 feet long, same length as my kayak, came out of the water and went right over my head. As it was heading back into the water, on the far side of its arc, it looked back, and we made eye contact for a few seconds, just looking into each other's eyes.
That moment was a moment of ecstasy in the true sense. I was transformed beyond exhilaration. And then a remarkable thing happened. When I turned back to the shore, I saw something I hadn't seen before—a slipway that was breaking the waves and had created a patch of clear water large enough to get my kayak into.
You could say that that dolphin saved my life. That heightened attention—that sudden change of state—enabled me to see what I hadn't seen before. Just talking about it still thrills and entrances me.