Rewilding and Malthus

In September I was fortunate to attend the excellent Future of Wild Europe conference at Leeds University. Over three days, keynote speakers and early-career researchers in the environmental humanities gave presentations on rewilding, ethnography and many other fascinating topics related to political ecology.

Pretty much my first academic conference, I found it hugely stimulating, and a great opportunity to accost authors of papers I was citing in my dissertation at coffee break. It was also not without a share of controversy and a range of different and at times conflicting visions were presented as to what a “wild Europe” might mean and how to get there.

Irma Allen of the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm also attended the conference and has written about her impressions in a thought-provoking blog, The Trouble with RewildingHere, she poses some challenging questions about what she felt was revealed concerning  the ideological underpinnings of the rewilding movement. Three main issues  concern her: the racialized Malthussian origins of rewilding; concerns about land abandonment and passive rewilding in Europe being facilitated by importing “virtual” agricultural land; and rewilding initiatives being concentrated in the historically marginalized regions of Central and Eastern Europe.

  1. Malthus and the discourse of over-population

Environmentalism has a dark history of Malthussian “Limits to Growth” thinking and misanthropy. A focus on and at times pre-occupation with over-population as the primary driver of environmental destruction, frequently accompanied by the reification of a sublime Nature above human well-being, has lead to an assumption that the only truly healthy Nature is one devoid of humans.

As Allen says, this issue was most famously addressed by William Cronon in his 1996 essay The Trouble with Wilderness (pdf)(Cronon 1996):

Perhaps partly because our own conflicts over such places and organisms have become so messy, the convergence of wilderness values with concerns about biological diversity and endangered species has helped produce a deep fascination for remote ecosystems, where it is easier to imagine that nature might somehow be “left alone” to flourish by its own pristine devices. The classic example is the tropical rain forest, which since the 1970s has become the most powerful modern icon of unfallen, sacred land—a veritable Garden of Eden—for many Americans and Europeans. And yet protecting the rain forest in the eyes of First World environmnetalists all too often means protecting it from people who live there.

Those who seek to preserve such “wilderness” from the activities of native peoples run the risk of reproducing the same tragedy—being forceably removed from an ancient home—that befell American Indians. Third World countries face massive environmental problems and deep social conflicts, but these are not likely to be solved by a cultural myth that encourages us to “preserve” peopleless landscapes that have not existed in such places for millennia…

…exporting American notions of wilderness in this way can become an unthinking and self-defeating form of cultural imperialism

Cronon goes onto argue that the dichotomy that the concept of wilderness creates- that of a separation of anything touched by humans from pristine Nature- leads us to de-value the more prosaic world that we inhabit, and thus disregard the nature and the natural that is all around us, in our backyards, or even in the heart of the city. If we hold an essentially illusory image of “the wilderness”- since nature untouched by humans hardly exists anymore, and arguably has not for a long time- as the only true nature worth preserving or paying attention to, we will neglect to look after the less exciting but equally important diversity than can often be found all around us.

In her post, Allen goes onto trace these Malthussian strains from one of the originators of rewilding, deep ecologist Dave Foreman, to the founder of Rewilding Europe, Toby Aykroyd, who also gave a presentation at the Leeds conference. Allen found that Aykroyd is also the founder of the Population and Sustainability Network, which focusses on the links between reproductive health, population and the environment, and provides free family planning services in developing countries- all well and good she says, but “when motivated by concern over natural resources and carrying capacities, and linked to power-laden development agendas, this shades into murkier territories and rationales that I find deeply uncomfortable.”

In my dissertation on rewilding (available here) I also referenced some of these associations:

The darker side of misanthropic environmentalism still pervades more extreme rewilding discourses and can readily be found on online forums and blogs (see for example The Happy Anachronism blog, 2012; The Rewild West n.d.). Drastic reductions in human population, either forced or through some kind of ecological collapse, are seen by these writers as a necessary and even desirable pre-requisite to any genuine rewilding (Foreman 2015). At times, these views can seem uncomfortably close to certain strands of Nazi ideology, which was itself strongly informed by belief in the purity of pristine Nature, underpinned by their mythology of the urwald (primeval forest) which they associated with the Fatherland and Aryan supremacy (Biehl and Staudenmaier 1995; Schama 1996).

While some find thinking about this uncomfortable and would rather not have it discussed, or claim that it is no longer relevant, the conservation movement needs to own openly to its origins in a history of forced evictions of native peoples in order to create protected wilderness areas (Dowie 2011), a practice that is still going on today.

In this way, “wilderness” can be seen a cultural artifact, literally created by the forced removal of people (Ginn and Demeritt 2008). This is what Monbiot (1994) calls forced rewilding  (it is a curious aspect of his work that he gives scant mention of these issues in his more recent influential rewilding book Feral [2013]).

Perhaps oddly, neither Allen in her post, nor as far as I could see from a quick search on the PSN website, make any mention of the demographic transition- the well researched process of development, by which birth rates decline, sometimes dramatically, with economic development, as infant mortality declines and people move away from subsistence farming, and no longer require large numbers of children to ensure enough survived to work the land (Galor and Weil 2000).

Given that the data has been in on this process for decades and just keeps getting stronger, psychological explanations are being employed, as referenced by Allen,  to explain why overpopulation is still routinely referred to as “the elephant on the room”, a kind of “public secret” when in fact it has always been a core underpinning of the environmental movement, championed most prominently by Stanford professor Paul Ehrlich (1968). A challenge for rewilding then will be to make a clean break with such Malthussian ideology.

Dolly Jørgensen, who also spoke at the conference, comes to the same conclusion in her review of rewilding:

Taken as a whole, rewilding discourse seeks to erase human history and involvement with the land and flora and fauna

(Jørgensen, D. 2014)

In response, Prior and Ward (2016) make the case that many rewilding “experiments” are indeed well integrated with human activity and presence, citing two examples of beaver re-introductions in Scotland, and the Oostvaardersplassen reserve in the Netherlands. However, my own research last summer suggests that people are likely to continue to use “rewilding” in many different ways, and even if efforts are made to shake off the idea of rewilding being about the reconstruction of an imagined “pristine” nature, there is bound to be some considerable slippage in public discourse. Rewilding will remain strongly associated with wilderness discourse and continue to draw from a broad church, including Malthussian deep-ecology.

Rather than focus on over-population, Allen sees over-consumption as being a more significant issue, bringing her to her second issue: exporting productive land overseas to allow increased conservation at home.

2. Virtual land trade in Europe

Citing the 2010 OPERA report (von Witzke and Noleppa 2010) on land-sparing, Allen points to data suggesting that Europe’s dramatic increase in productive land abandonment- hailed by some as an opportunity for passive rewilding ( Navarro and Pereira 2012) and regreening (the topic of my last post)   has come only at the expense of a “virtual land grab” outside the EU, mainly in developing countries, who have seen a consummate loss of forest cover. If so, this would provide a challenge to those, like myself, who have argued for intensification of agriculture as a way of freeing up farmland for nature.

However more recent data show that post-2008, the trend within the EU of increasing its virtual land imports has reversed, declining more than a third from the peak of 2007/8:


Source: Noleppa, S., & Cartsburg, M. (2014). Another look at agricultural trade of the European Union: Virtual land trade and self-sufficiency. Hffa Research.

While Europe still imports a large amount of “virtual farmlandland”, mainly in the form of oilseed crops, primarily soya from South America, the trend for other crops is in the other direction as Europe increases efficiency and raises yields. Moreover, a proportion of this virtual acreage is for the production of crops to meet the EU biofuel mandates. Under scenarios explored in the earlier study, this could already account for some 3-4m ha, rising by another 10% if biofuel mandates are increased.

Allen also points to the issue of land-grabbing in Europe, fingering EU-backed neo-liberal policies. While this may be a serious problem, dislocating traditional farming communities, this cannot be the same land that is being abandoned, but is rather for intensive production- which itself could lead to more abandonment of marginal land and subsequent re-greening. Implicit in her post is also a degree of “anti-capitalist” rhetoric, which ignores the considerable data for overall long-term improvement of living conditions under capitalism.

Allen argues that rather than welcoming the process of depopulating rural areas and land abandonment, rewilding should align itself with High Nature Value farming (HNV) and the benefits known to be provided to wildlife by by small farms- in other words, a land-sharing approach:

The key point here is that there is nothing neutral about processes of rural depopulation. Rather than passively celebrate their demise, should rewilding advocates not align themselves with small-scale farmers, whose practices, at least in Europe, can often encourage far greater biodiversity, and are themselves perhaps part of the very notion of ‘wild’ we might want to cultivate – non-homogenous, diverse, non-standardised, and self-willed?

This does seem to obviate the whole point of what rewilding seeks to achieve: If rewilding means anything at all distinctive, it is as a challenge to conventional conservation policies, which are deeply meshed within agri-environment schemes coming out of Europe the past 40 years. In contrast to rewilding, whereby natural processes are given priority to lead where they may (not unproblematic in itself), HNV farming has more in common with what we already have, which seeks to maintain specific habitats, generally those found in pre-WW2 pre-industrially farmed landscapes.

Agri-environment policies are already geared to promote land-sharing. But with world food demand set to rise dramatically over the coming decades, we will also need land-sparing, including new technologies to increase yields. A stalling in  innovation is cited as one of the major reasons for the slow-down in agricultural yield increases globally, and in Europe especially, where GMOs for example are strongly opposed and largely restricted. The OPERA report concludes that excessive regulations and bureaucracy have stifled agricultural innovation in the EU, while an increase in lower-yielding Organic agriculture across the EU would only lead to in an increase in virtual land imports.

3. Bio-capitalism in Eastern Europe

Allen’s final point is to question how, although rewilding generally has been focussed on the developed world, yet within Europe, most initiatives seem to be in the poorer eastern countries. This is true at least for one of the more prominent rewilding organisations, Rewilding Europe, which has most of its projects located in the poorer European countries of eastern Europe.

I think this is another valid point which is worthy of further discussion and research. This could be focussed for example on how eastern Europe may be at an earlier stage of the demographic transition through which more devloped countries have already passed, and how this relates to forest transitions. From informal discussions and other presentations at the Leeds conference, there were suggestions that RW Europe, and perhaps other organisations, see the depopulation of rural areas much to their advantage, and their assumption that alternative livelihoods in eco- and wildlife tourism can seemlessly make up for the decline in farming in these areas needs to be demonstrated rather than assumed.


Irma Allen has raised some perhaps uncomfortable questions for the rewilding movement. Its Malthussian origins should not be ignored and vigilance is needed to ensure it just does not become just the latest vehicle for misanthropic green fascism. Nevertheless, there are some contradictions in her arguments, and a danger of replicating these very same issues in her own apparent preference for small farms and extensive agriculture, while opposing agricultural technology that is badly needed to feed a still growing world population aswell as freeing up more land for nature. This is not to undersate the social disruptions which are likely to accompany such transitions, and further study should be undertaken to assess the social impacts of both agricultural intensification and any possible “green-grabbing” being carried out in the name of rewilding.


Biehl, J. and Staudenmaier, P. 1995 Ecofascism: Lessons from the German Experience AK

Cronon, W. (ed) 1996 Uncommon Ground- Rethinking the Human Place in Nature
W.W.Norton & Co. New York/London

Ehrlich, P. 1968 The Population Bomb MacMillan

FAO. 2016. State of the World’s Forests 2016.
Forests and agriculture: land-use challenges and opportunities. Rome.

Foreman, D. 2015 [online] An Interview with Dave Foreman [last accessed 12-07-2016]

Galor, O. and Weil, D.N. 2000 Population, Technology and Growth: From Malthusian Stagnation to the Demographic Transition and Beyond American Economic Review Vol. 90, No. 4 (Sept 2000), pp 806-828

Ginn, F. and Demeritt, D. 2008 Nature: A Contested Concept Ch.17 in Clifford, N.J. et al 2008 Key Concepts in Geography, Sage Publications Ltd.

Jørgensen, D. 2014 Rethinking Rewilding Geoforum 65 (2015) 482–488

Monbiot 1994 No Man’s Land: an investigative journey Through Kenya and Tanzania
MacMillan, London

Monbiot, G. 2013 Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea and Human Life Allen Lane

Navarro, L.M. and Pereira, H. M.2012 Rewilding Abandoned landscapes in Europe  Ecosystems (2012) 15: 900–912

Noleppa, S., & Cartsburg, M. (2014). Another look at agricultural trade of the European Union: Virtual land trade and self-sufficiency. Hffa Research.

Prior, J. and Ward, K. 2016 Rethinking rewilding: A response to Jørgensen Geoforum 69
(2016) 132–135

Schama, S. (1996), S. 1996 Landscape and Memory Vintage

Von Witzke, H., & Noleppa, S. (2010). EU agricultural production and trade: Can more efficiency prevent increasing “land-grabbing”outside of Europe? Study Commissioned by OPERA.


6 thoughts on “Rewilding and Malthus

  1. Well… I left Irma a lengthy reply to her blog/essay but she has yet to get back to me. Perhaps you might do it for her? At the risk of repeating myself, I’ll revisit some of my thoughts here in response to your own blog.

    1. ” Its Malthussian [sic] origins should not be ignored and vigilance is needed to ensure it just does not become just the latest vehicle for misanthropic green fascism.” What is it with this apparent obsession with digging over a few ramblings by rewilders who seem to predicate their wishes with some kind of neo-Malthusian apocalypse to kill off half the population? News to me and I’ve been closely involved in the UK/European wilderness and rewilding scene for nearly 20 years. Clearly I’m not that well read, or may be I just read different stuff …or through different eyes? I guess it’s easy for intellectuals to pick on a few extreme examples and paint the rest of the rewilding movement with the same colours – a swastika on a green background perhaps? Yes, there’ll always be extreme views and cases (isn’t that just human nature?) but as you know I very much propose a view of rewilding that is part of a continuum and as a continuum even within itself. I know you’ve read this… …so why not cite this as the voice of reason? It excludes no one and includes everyone. What’s not to like?

    2. Cronon is soooo last century. Read our IUCN “Wilderness Protected Areas: Management guidelines for IUCN Category 1b protected areas” (2016) wherein there are several sections devoted to indigenous people and local communities./ …there is little point in separating wilderness from humans (or rewilding by excluding humans) and most people in conservation understand that, just as the green modernist movement needs to recognise that we cannot survive without wild nature or engineer our way out of every crisis (including population growth).

    3. I said it to Irma and I’ll say it to you… don’t disrespect Toby Aykroyd or question his motives.He’s done more to promote the protection and valuing of wilderness and natural habitats, species and process in Europe than anyone I know and for that he deserves a medal and your respect. Any link, implied or otherwise, between Toby’s work and Nazi ideologies I find cheap and frankly insulting, and I really hope he doesn’t see or read any of this.

    4. I am fully aware of the demographic transition model, but the “elephant in the room” continues to get fatter because many nations with burgeoning populations are still in the early transition phase. We need to get the whole world onto the late and post-transition stages ASAP or else we’re all in trouble. I’m not for a minute suggesting this happens via a return to pre-transition stage Malthusian collapses but we could well end up there if population growth outstrips global resources leading as I explained to Irma to more drought, war, famine, extinctions, etc. Her predilection for small scale “permaculture” style farming is dependent on much smaller global populations. This style of agriculture only works for local sustainable communities and it cannot feed the 7.5 billion people on the planet unless we have a zero wild(er)ness policy (and even that is doubtful). So, we need to get as many countries as possible to late and post-transition stage as soon as possible and improve wealth, health and well-being and so reduce population growth. How? Better (re)distribution of wealth and resources. How we achieve that, I’ve no idea but I suspect it lies in over-turning the current trends in the concentration of wealth and power.

    5. Wilderness is NOT a cultural artefact, but it is a cultural concept. The biophysical realities of wild and natural ecosystems where human influence is or has been minimal are plain to see. The human benefits of wilderness extend well beyond aesthetics and recreation, and while I’m no fan of the wholly anthropocentric model of ecosystem services (less so of Natural Capital) I do see the advantages of seeing the value of nature and natural processes as essential components for “life support” and maintenance of economic activity. It has been calculated that the total annual economic worth of the natural environment to the global economy is in the region of $44 trillion, or roughly twice that of global GNP (Costanza et al. 1997). Let’s not forget that.

    6. Please don’t hold up Oostvaarderplassen as some kind of model rewilding project. It isn’t, It’s a zoo… a failed experiment and one based on a flawed hypothesis. The fence makes it a zoo and therefore not natural (the animals can’t migrate when their food runs short in the winter and so they starve because their population has grown beyond the carrying capacity of the fenced area in the absence of a predatory pressure…. oh look… perhaps this is a metaphor for humans fenced into a planet of limited size and resources… may be I am a neo-Malthusian misanthrope after all?)

    7. And don’t hold up Rewilding Europe as the model organisation for the rewilding movement in Europe. They aren’t. They might be the most “successful” and have the slickest PR but much of it is “smoke and mirrors”. You’d be much better off having a look at other rewilding programmes and projects in the UK… Carrifran Wildwood, Trees for Life, etc. These are not predicated on excluding people or erasing histories or green fascism. Talk to Alan Watson Featherstone, or Philip Ashmoles. You’ll find them harder to criticise.


    1. Hi Steve, many thanks for your comments. I think we have much to agree on.

      Note that my post is largely a critique of Irma’s- I think she got some things right and some things wrong. What is good is that we all agree that what I refer to as (in my dissertation) “The darker side of misanthropic environmentalism” should be left behind- I am encouraged that you think it is not relevant anymore, but personally disagree, and would be very wary of any complacency in that regard.

      Just one anecdotal remark: I came across Irma’s blog from a RW Britain message board, and the very first comment was: “The last thing we need is for rewilding to engage with any kind of social program.” Arts has also concluded in his review that most rewilding discussion maintains a clear nature-culture binary (Arts et al 2016 “Boundaries of the Wolf…”). So I find your argument that these debates no longer relevant somewhat strange.

      The demographic transition is not well-understood, and yes I would challenge the PSN, itself devoted to demographic issues, for not clearly explaining it in its literature and showing awareness of working with this process- it is after all probably the most significant social change of the past 50 years. Neglecting any mention of it in their literature is more than a little strange or neglectful. As in your own comments, we constantly hear of over-population as being the “elephant in the room” when, as both Irma and I clearly explain, over-population has been one of the principle foundations and motivations of the environmental/conservation movement from the start, and continues to be so- as I reference in the post, conservation to this day still involves the eviction of local and tribal peoples in some cases. I think you agree we should all work together to oppose this?

      It should be clear from my post that provision of contraception (viz. Ackroyd’s Population and Sustainability Network) is an essential part of this transition but context and ideological underpinnings are crucial, I agree with Irma on this. So I absolutely agree with you that “we need to get as many countries as possible to late and post-transition stage as soon as possible and improve wealth, health and well-being and so reduce population growth”- although I wouldn’t really word it that way- “we” don’t necessarily have to do anything, other than get out of the way of the processes of development that facilitate this. It is already happening, at a rate much faster than predicted in most parts of the world, through the process of development. All this is fairly well-understood and extensively researched. It is however not very widely known about or discussed- a true “elephant in the room” perhaps?!

      However, I would be therefore very critical of Dark Green environmentalism that opposes the technologies that facilitate such transitions- so it is very ironic that the land-sharing approach favored by Irma does exactly that- you are absolutely correct that extensive farming methods still practiced in the developing world are not suitable for today’s populations, but not only that, keeping subsistence farmers tied to the land ensures they continue to large families and experience rapid population growth. Regrettably, this is indeed still a very dominant ideology and approach for large swathes of the green movement- for example the organic movement- who romanticize the peasant farmer and work hard to keep them on the land without technology that can help improve yields even as it is often the very same groups who continue to highlight over-population as the ‘elephant in the room’ .

      I am however a little confused by some of your own statements that seem somewhat contradictory. Comparing over-shoot and die-off in animal populations to humans is of course precisely the root of the confusion of Malthussian environmentalism. If you think of humans as just animals, then pretty soon you will start treating them as such- this is indeed the root of ecofascism, and has been in the recent past vigorously promoted through ecology and conservation science (Ehrlich). I write this kind of blog as a small part of that process of challenging Malthussianism- I am hoping, then, that you largely support what I am saying, although it doesnt really come across that way?!

      I know that there is evidence of adaptive behavior amongst some animals wrt reproductive rates and resource availability, but humans are really not like animals ecologically in this sense- I get the impression that you do not fully agree with this! Humans are obviously not restricted (apart from perhaps in very special cases on remote islands, or temporarily) by resource availability, since we innovate constantly to create new resources in new forms, thus extending the carrying capacity- if this were not true, then ofcourse we would have collapsed back to a much smaller population centuries ago. I would say this understanding is however the complete antithesis of 90% of political environmentalism today, and also not well accepted by many ecologists nor in much environmental policy.

      This understanding of demographic (and environmental) transitions is the foundation of ecomodernist thought- essentially a land-sparing approach. I do take Irma’s point however that the way this actually takes place is critically important.

      Yes, I have interviewed people involved with Carrifran, and visited the project twice last year. Interestingly, one of the early debates amongst people involved there, as I was informed, was whether or not Carrifran could be in part at least a “working wood” eg with coppiceing, and there was a very strong view that it should not be, that it should minimize any human impact of any kind once established- ie whether it should be a model of “wilderness” (defined by absence of humans) or whether it would involve managment (RW is defined, I think, as “absence of human mangement” ?!) So this is a particular ideological approach, perfectly valid for Carrifran, but ofcourse there are other valid opinions and approaches also. What would happen, do you think, if their philosophical approach was extended widely across conservation/rewilding policy? would you support it? does this tie in with your own conceptions? do you think it would engender wider debates about human-nature interactions? It is hard to see how you can claim as you appear to that these issues have long been put to bed and are no longer “live”.

      In my own research last year, and in my involvement with environmentalism the past nearly 30 years, I will have to disagree with you: the insights from Cronin are just as relevant today as 20 years ago when he was writing. Those debates are still absolutely ongoing, and despite your lengthy and erudite comment, I hope you dont mind me saying that I still see some hints of those issues not being fully resolved in your own views.

      As regards views of Oostvaarderplassen and rewilding, I am not an authority- you really need to have that debate with Prior and Ward; or Jamie Lorimer (keynote speaker at the Leeds conference) who has also written extensively on the project, discussing the very issues you raise. Clearly, what constitutes or defines “rewilding” will continue to generate lively discussion!

      If I have learned anything since last summer, it is that “rewilding” is a very broad church, it most certainly does not mean one clear agreed thing to everyone, and while it may not be obvious at the higher reaches of academic research, deep ecology, 19thC views on “wilderness” and Malthussianism are still very much alive and well. I very much welcome your own contributions that work to challenge these influences with a more progressive approach.


  2. Hi Graham, Thanks for the response to my comments. Always good to chew the fat!

    To start with maybe me leaving the darker side of what you call “misanthropic environmentalism” behind is just a reflection of the wider world’s view of environmental concerns and appreciation of wild(er)ness and nature (though I’d be grateful if you could point me towards the comment on the Rewilding Britain message board). Sure, you correctly point to some uncomfortable past ideas, which I too feel distinctly uncomfortable with… exclusion of native/indigenous people and the “great white hunter” mentality that sees conservation as a tool in maintaining enough game to shoot. Gak! It is for this reason that I have actively engaged the “traditionalist” game and conservation lobby so cleanly, challenging them on their warped ecological logic (I’ll come back to this as regards tradition and indigenous people in a moment).

    I think the whole nature-culture argument is misleading or at best a distraction. Yes, I understand it and it’s wonderful material for intellectual debate, but I’m more of an ecological realist. You may have read what I had to say on the matter in my ECOS piece “Rewilding… conservation and conflict” which is in many ways a follow up to my 2014 piece on re(al)wilding. In it I say “nature isn’t a human construct and it never was. Rather our understanding of it is. No amount of (re)imagining and (de)construction of nature is going change a thing. Nature just is.” You’ll probably disagree, but nature… wild nature… and the processes and phenomena that shape it and how it operates… doesn’t need us to observe, measure, understand or appreciate it, for it to continue operating just as it has done for eons and long before we (humans) evolved as something “other” or more-than-natural entities. Yes, we’ve altered so much of this planet that wild nature (particularly in whole fully-functioning wilderness ecosystems/landscapes) is a rare thing. If you’re a anthropophile (is that a word?) which insists on the primacy of humankind and places us at the centre of everything, then you might be ok with a world with little appreciable wilderness, but I certainly am not. If we have to consciously exclude people from a few areas to keep them wild (or rewild them) then I’m good with that. Rewilding is about action to save some of wild nature by giving it (back) space to be wild in. I promise I’ll return to excluding people in a moment also.

    The DTM is… well…. a model, and therefore a simplification of reality. The lesson here is don’t mix up your models with realities because reality is complex (chaotic even). As regards PSN, again I think you are perhaps too engaged in the nuances of the intellectual debate to see through to the real issues here? I would say that while the “elephant in the room” is population growth, it is not over population per se that is the problem, rather the impacts it generates. Yes, re: eviction of tribal folk BUT critically where do you draw the line? What constitutes indigenous? Or “primitive” (not that I like the term but here I’m meaning those tribes that have eschewed modern technology)? For example, are the modern Sami people still indigenous? I guess we’d argue they are, but I would maintain they ought to forfeit some of those indigenous rights when they choose to use modern technologies like helicopters, snowmobiles, quadbikes and rifles in pursuing their livelihoods based around reindeer herding. Using modern technology (at least in my mind) means that their reindeer herding is no longer wholly traditional when this is the case. I don’t begrudge them using modern tools but to call it “traditional” is then somehow disingenuous in my view.

    Back to the OVP-planet analogy. I was being ironic! Apologies if this wasn’t clear, but I stand by my distrust in anyone/thing that holds up OVP as the pinnacle of rewilding when it is little more than a zoo. So, no I don’t consider humans as animals. Quite the opposite in fact (even though biologically we are) because of our ability to quickly adapt and innovate through language, communication, sharing ideas, development of tools and advanced technology etc. These things make us something very different to the rest of the animal kingdom. This innovative capacity is a commonly stated reason for why over the last few centuries we’ve largely avoided any Malthusian cycles (except in the face of local cases) but what of possible global crises around the corner? As per my previous comments to you and Irma I genuinely worry about these.

    However, for now my key concern is the rapidly shrinking wilderness and the inability of control-freaks to see past some God-given right for humans to lord it over every other living thing on the planet. This is the whole quasi-religious “Manifest Destiny” argument that just cannot be right can it?

    So… back to exclusion of people. Wilderness and rewilding (however you want to define them) doesn’t have to exclude people. Yes, we (the global “we”) have to spare some land for nature, but we gain so many other benefits from that land sparing in return… ecosystem services, health and well-being, aesthetic appreciation… a Land Ethic. Let’s consider Carrifran. People are not excluded… they are involved, welcomed, empowered, enlightened… educated. What’s not to like? A few sheep are the animals that have been excluded, not people. I’m very much in favour of their approach (and that of TFL) and would like to see it rolled out across the country as and where possible/appropriate reconnecting people with the land as we go. This is in fact exactly what is happening as they have acquired two other adjoining valleys in Talla and Gamehope and have strategic links with Borders Forest Trust and the Tweed Valley restoration project. I don’t think the issues have necessarily been put to bed, rather they remain for us to chew over, but let’s move on and look to future natural and dwell too much in the past. Here is where I reckon Cronon is yesterday’s poster boy of the anti-wilderness think-speak. Yes, he may have had a point about the way some US NPs were created but (again) let’s move on.

    Finally, here’s my developing thoughts on the problem of traditional land rights and indigenous people. Who are the indigenous people in the UK? The Gaelic Scot? The Welsh hill farmer? A Yorkshireman? Well, I’m the latter and I have no indigenous land rights. Those were stolen from my forebears during the English “clearances” of the Enclosures. The land that belonged to some unknown ancestor is now (in the main) owned by the ancestoral families of those who stole it. Think Duke of Buccleuch, Westminster, Northumberland, etc. etc. The land I’d really like to target for rewilding is theirs… a kind of resetting of the landscape clock over the English and Scottish grouse moors. They kicked us off the land 100s of years ago enslaving us in the process to a life working for their profit, so why can’t we do that to them and give it to nature instead?


    1. Hi Steve thanks again for your reply. None of these are new debates. For example, I remember having the same debates regarding whether a woodland should be a “reserve” or working wood over 25 years ago when I worked with Reforesting Scotland. I don’t see them ever going away- they are very much a matter of opinion and personal/cultural values. Carrifran is unique and I can easily understand why the originators did not want it as a working wood. But as the projects expand and more woods appear in the Scottish Borders, I would have thought there will be scope for working woods as well. There is no right or wrong here- but if you look at conservation conflicts over Bialowiecza forest for example, a lot of the issues are about local people’s historical rights to take firewood, gather mushrooms etc.. same with Royal Forest in Britain, preserved for Nature… and the wealthy. A “look but don’t touch” approach to conservation is only one approach, and does have its limits it seems.

      So, considering Oostvaaderplassen as a “zoo” is one point of view; I can certainly understand why you say this, but you are dismissing the whole academic literature which considers it as a rewilding project. By the same token, Carrifran may be dismissed by others for being just trees, no herbivores- and indeed, Philip told us when we visited on a study tour that he avoids the word “rewinding” since it “carries a lot of baggage”. What about Knepp, listed as a Rewilding Britain project? Is that just a “zoo” ? It is not that I disagree per se, more that I feel the quest for the “pure” rewilding project will always remain a quest and not a realisation- and has certain parallels with the quest for pristine wilderness….
      Bringing us back to Cronin. We may have to agree to disagree on his continued relevance, but I think you may be mis-reading him.

      Yes, I did read your ECOS piece, and I found it curious: this is a philosophical point perhaps, but clearly, while you are correct that Nature just “Is”, we can never know it in that sense. As soon as we talk about it, think about it, devise policies around it, we are projecting anthropogenic views. There is no avoiding this obvious point- I feel to deny our own projections onto the natural world is a kind of blindness. So, when you say, “if we have to consciously exclude a few people from a few areas to keep them wild…” I do think this is problematic, depending on who you want to exclude and why in each case- and depending on what you mean by “wild”… This is the whole point Steve! People have different views of what this means, culturally mediated and politicised. You disagree- you believe your own view of wild and wilderness is the only True one. I find this fascinating in itself…

      Yes I absolutely agree that humans are very different from animals. Obviously concerns about over-population are about the impacts, what else could they be over?
      “…but what of possible global crises around the corner?”

      But are we about to lose time capacity for innovation and adaptation? What do you know about the future that makes you think it will be subject to such different patterns than the past?
      I also think of Mark Twain- ” we spend most of our lives worrying about hints that never happen”.

      Finally, my views on the Anthropocene are not about destiny or any kind of God-given pre-eminence of humanity, but of responsibility. We can only step back and let nature take over in a very limited sense, it will still be our choice where we do this. As Stewart Brand says, “We are as gods- and have to get good at it.” It is no longer a choice we have to make about whether this is a human planet or not. That die is already cast.


  3. Hi Graham,

    This is fun isn’t it?

    Yes, we’ve been having this debate for a long time. Don’t I point to this in my 2014 ECOS article on re(al)wilding? The need for a continuum of approaches at different levels across a continuum of spatial scales? Perhaps you are just distracted by the term “rewilding” and like many others jump to the conclusion that we want to rewild everything and everywhere? I don’t suppose you are but it makes for an easy intellectual target doesn’t it?

    So, yes… I personally propose we work towards some version of Soule and Noss’ three-Cs model for the UK and Europe wherein the cores are (as in a MAB Biosphere Reserve) surrounded by buffer zones in which, for a woodland landscape, agri-forestry and woodland products (extensive grazing, food gathering, etc.) would be the norm. I’m aware of Białowieża but haven’t had the chance to visit yet. It too is a continuum as far as I’m aware with different areas of historical/current use (and lack of in the remoter core areas) which inevitably gives rise to a complex political interpretation. I was present at the EU Beyond Wood meeting in Brussels when activists invaded the council chamber to interrupt Jan Szyszko’s speech as Polish Environment Minister in protest over the Polish government’s support for logging in ancient forest areas.

    I’d be interested to know where you stand on this. In support of local people’s rights to exploit the forest for economic gain/livelihoods/traditional use or the nation’s right (and Europe’s) to protect the few remaining areas of old growth forest? And what of the rights of the forest itself? It’s also a problem in Romania where the post-Communist era restitution process has led to return of forest lands to the people – critically not necessarily the bits the families owned prior to the war resulting in the disruption of the people-land connection. This has lead to illegal logging and selling off for profit to western European logging companies such as Schweighhofer fuelled largely by demand for resources in the far east (population growth and the DTM again!). Meanwhile some other rich people (including and partly coordinated by Toby you’ll be pleased to hear) are bankrolling the purchase of large contiguous blocks of intact forest when they come on the market, complete with hunting rights to, in effect, protect them from logging and hunting and preserve them as wilderness areas. If I were a rich man (said Topol) I know where I’d be putting my money.

    This neatly segues us back to OVP and Franz Vera. Last time I saw him he’d pretty much abandoned OVP in favour of Białowieża because OVP has largely failed to support his wood-pasture hypothesis with a failure of any evidence of tree regeneration due to over-grazing, which itself is a result of the limited size of the OVP enclosure and, of course, the fence. Białowieża provides a better option for testing his theories due to its permeable borders and bigger size, though at Rotherham’s “Wild Thing” event in Sheffield in 2015 he seemed more interested in human forest histories than ecology per se. I don’t dismiss the academic literature on OVP, rather I question its ecological relevance for the reasons stated. You can call it “rewilding” if you like and study people’s reactions and understandings but it still remains a zoo in my mind simply because of the fence and lack of predator pressure… and a bad zoo at that because of the deaths of many animals from starvation in the winter months.

    Yes, it is interesting to study this and write papers about it. I know… I did (see Carver, S. 2006. Connectivity of nature in the Dutch landscape. ECOS, 27(3/4), 61.) written when I was somewhat younger and more naive and when I too was taken in by the Vera’s smooth-talk and a vision of the wild in Europe. As I have watched the experiment develop, and listened to Rewilding Europe, and so I now questioned this as a valid vision for wild nature in Europe.

    Carrifran is indeed different. They acknowledge the small beginnings of the restoration project (and as you point out they do not label it as ‘rewilding’ because of the baggage that comes with it). Because the valley is small it cannot contain a sustainable number of large herbivores (though deer do get in) and there is certainly not the space for a carnivore. But is will create habitat for birds, smaller mammals, insects and a unique space for people to enjoy as well as create ecosystem service benefits downstream. As the project grows and links to the wider landscape (as it is doing), then it will become a vital linkage (I hope) in a national 3Cs style network of green/blue cores and corridors that criss-crosses across the uban/agri-landscape of Britain. Knepp might be part of this but at present it is too wedded to the OVP/Vera model of wood-pasture landscapes for my liking. Like OVP, it is fenced. Like OVP it uses semi-domestic surrogate graziers, like OVP there is no predatory pressure. Unlike OVP it is just farming, albeit in a wilder way. That’s not to say I don’t disagree with what Charlie is doing, rather I just see it as Rewilding-Lite and therefore part of the lower end of the rewilding continuum.

    I honestly don’t think we ought to worry that much about the nature-culture-nature debate. If you want to write about it that’s fine, but my personal view is an intellectual side-show. As you ought to realise by now I’m more interested in the ecological realities of wildness and naturalness and less interested in how we as human’s perceive it. Like I said, no amount of (re)imagining and (de)construction of what nature is and means to us is going to change what it is and how it works. And Charles Foster is just nuts! (though I find what he’s trying to do intriguing as I do appreciate we all have different ways of experiencing the wild). However, what I’m trying to say here is our experiencing it doesn’t alter the fundamental bio-physical realities of wild and natural. Our descriptions of what we see is just thoughts and words. But to me wilderness is about landscapes that are largely devoid of human influence and interference (acknowledging the impact of historical interventions whether by tribal or western cultures, and the impact of global pollution and climate change which we cannot avoid) such that the patterns and forms and wildlife contained therein are determined not by us but by wild and natural processes. I know what I mean by wild. Do you? These are the things that would still exist even if we weren’t here to experience them and tie ourselves in knots over exactly what it is we’re talking about. The fact that we do and are doesn’t alter it (note here the determined use of the pronoun ‘it’ rather than the noun ‘nature’ or adjective ‘wild’ so as to avoid any tautological misdirection).

    So, going back to who we exclude, you didn’t answer my questions about when a traditional or indigenous culture becomes something else and ought to be considered just like you and me… landless oiks with no such rights? How about rewilding some of the grouse moors or the land stolen from our ancestors by today’s gentry? Good idea, yes? Are you actually extolling the rights of all humanity over ‘it’ and that ‘it’ doesn’t matter just so long as the prime species continues to exist happy-ever-after? Do you actually believe human ingenuity will save us from our own excess? (btw.. one other thing Mark Twain said is “Buy land, they’re not making it anymore”) And just what is your understanding of ‘it’ (wild nature and wilderness just to be clear)?

    Finally you let slip that you are actually interested in responsibility. Yes, you’re absolutely right that this is a human dominated planet (at least in terms of flora and fauna and the ecosystems they comprise though I doubt our influence extends much to plate tectonics and orogeny) but as you say we’re responsible for making decisions about the planet’s remaining wild spaces and wild species. The current trajectory is towards more and more extinctions, and less and less wild(er)ness. Are you cool with that? Or are you directing our shared responsibilities purely towards people? Ought we be less selfish and spare some land for nature? Or, indeed, create some more through rewilding? Ethically done of course!


  4. btw… have you read Leopold? I’m sure you have but just asking

    “We shall never achieve harmony with land, anymore that we shall achieve absolute
    justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to
    achieve, but to strive” (Leopold, 1949)


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