On Rewilding (Whatever That Is): Thoughts of a Faux-Expat

N.B. For a somewhat more refined and targeted call on the North American rewilding movement to be critical of what’s happening in Europe (which is also half the length), check out American Rewilders Should Worry about Europe (Take Two) (Nov 2022). Keep reading for a discursive account of how I personally came to be interested in rewilding but worried about Europe, combined with commentary on semantics, ecology, and ethics.

As I have become more involved in the “rewilding” movement, I find myself compelled to make my position clear. I came to support traditional rewilding on the basis of the same moral commitments that later caused me oppose other trends in conservation that are also called ‘rewilding’ (especially in Europe, where I’ve been pretending to live). But above all, perhaps, I am committed to the rule of logic, and thus alarmed by the uncritical treatment of ‘rewilding’ as a univocal term and the nexus of a single unified movement. It is not.

This initial statement piece, although way too long, remains far from an exhaustive treatment, leaving many loose ends; it does not provide any sort of comprehensive review of the “rewilding” discourse or relevant ecological research, and the ethical analysis is still hand-wavy. But look: it is a first-pass post on a personal website; it’s not meant to pretend to be complete or authoritative. I am a novice. But I have seen enough to know that the “rewilding movement” needs to stop glossing over substantive disagreements.

 

On Rewilding (Whatever That Is): Thoughts of a Faux-Expat

I can’t say for sure whether or not I support “rewilding”.

I have been deeply inspired by the steadfastly non-anthropocentric moral foundations of the work of Dave Foreman, Michael Soulé, and other founders of the groundbreaking North American rewilding movement, as well as the ambitious visions for continent-scale conservation that followed therefrom. On the other hand, I now live mainly in Europe, where I refuse to use the word ‘rewilding’ to refer to any interest of mine, since for one I am loath to support the livestock industry against spontaneous afforestation (see §2). Meanwhile, as an analytic philosopher and thus inveterate stickler for linguistic clarity and logical consistency, I’ve been by turns appalled, confused, and morbidly fascinated by the tendency of advocates and other commentators to uncritically speak as though ‘rewilding’ expressed a single coherent concept. My own view is that ‘rewilding’ is best understood as an ambiguous term. In particular, what seem to be the predominant North American and European senses of ‘rewilding’ have different meanings, encapsulated by significantly different entrenched conceptual prototypes. Once we accept the semantic ambiguity, those of us in the North American tradition should 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 (to put it delicately) on both ecological and ethical grounds (§3).

Before I get there, however, I must say more about the moral framework that drew me to something called ‘rewilding’ in the first place. This is essential to understanding my critical attitude toward both the stereotypical projects called ‘rewilding’ in Europe and attempts to provide a common definition to unify the North American and European ‘rewilding’-so-called movements: any unifying framework would, by necessity, shunt aside the moral underpinnings that lured me to the North American rewilding movement in the first place. 

1. Ecocentric Ethics and Initial Attraction to Rewilding

Like many, I presume, I became enthralled by the North American rewilding movement due to Dave Foreman’s classic Rewilding North America (2004). Perhaps more unusually, the book excited me less as an American looking for inspiring conservation projects – by the time I read it, I’d already decided to flee to Europe ASAP, and thus I was already hoping to discover inspiring projects there – but as a dilettante in ecological ethics.

More context: in 2019, I was spontaneously and unexpectedly hired as the associate director of an ethics centre at a major university. It was not a research position. However, being a trained philosopher and naturally inclined to philosophical enquiry, I was inspired to join the fun of thinking about moral philosophy. Now, this happened at a time when experiences of nature and wildlife (read: birds) had become exceedingly important as part of my daily living, and when I’d recently rekindled a long-squelched hankering for the natural sciences. In fact, had it not been for the surprise job offer, my plan had been to return to school to study taphonomy and palaeoecology. Given such interests, my natural disposition was to think about environmental ethics, especially from a non-anthropocentric perspective, which always seemed like the obvious default position. Prior to Covid, I’d also begun supplementing philosophical reading with attending courses in conservation biology and restoration ecology.

Philosophically, I became particularly engrossed by the ecological holism and aesthetic themes of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and … and, well, I guess 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. Natural evolution, in other words, should be treated as sacred – not defiled and desecrated by the imposition of human control on every square inch of the Earth. It’s a view that I’d still like someday to hash out in more philosophical analness – er, rigour, I mean. 

In early 2020, I was heartened and amazed to find an author defending – or, even better, presupposing – something very much like my own intuitive position on the foundations of an ecocentric ethic: the author was Dave Foreman, and the book was Rewilding North America. I’d expected 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 – often citing Michael Soulé – 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. This was augmented by Foreman’s frequent reminders that ‘wilderness’ means self-willed land. Far from a mere etymological factoid, this definition is philosophically illuminating, deftly addressing hackneyed complaints against the coherence of the idea of wilderness (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 be pristine any more, etc.). In mulling over this concept of “self-willed land”, I realised that those complaints are all 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 the core moral themes: 

“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.”  

As far as the rewilding proposals themselves, 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, scientifically speaking, to pursue what is right?”      

I can’t resist mentioning one more underrated ethical insight from Foreman, this one from the inaugural episode of the Rewilding Earth Podcast in 2018 (“Dave Foreman On The History and Definition of Rewilding”): “I don’t know if Homo sapiens is going to exist in a hundred years the way we’re doing. But what my goal really is, is to have all the building blocks of evolution — which are native species, natural processes, large chunks of land and oceans and lakes and rivers that are off limits to industrial civilization — for whatever comes next, and that’s the greatest legacy we can leave.”

For my own part, this is the only perspective on conservation that I am psychologically capable of finding hopeful and inspiring. I am too much of a realist to have any modicum of genuine hope as long as Homo sapiens persists – not for self-willed nature, not for self-willed beasts, not even for self-willed humans who long to live as autonomous agents, free from the stifling artificial constraints of our overdeveloped world. As I wrote in “The One in Which I Broach the Topic of Overpopulation” (July 2022), conservation also needs a stronger theoretical basis than clichés about the rights of future (human) generations, and Foreman’s insight might be a promising basis for exactly that.

Now, mind you, I am a human, and as long as I live, Homo sapiens is ipso facto not extinct, and so as long as I live I’m sure I’ll continue to muse over what an ideal human society would be like – in theory. That ideal society, in my view, would look something like the “Island Civilisation” described by Eileen Crist in her excellent book Abundant Earth, compact and downscaled human settlements in a sea of connected wilderness areas. I favour it in part for purely selfish reasons, overwhelmed as I am by both urbanisation and sprawl (and car culture, light pollution, noise pollution, etc.) and forced thereby to seek life on small mono-settlement islands. However, in flipping the current configuration of the matrix, Island Civilisation is also the natural human counterpart to the sweeping continent-scale conservation advocated by the founders of the North American rewilding movement. I have little tolerance, then, for those who find it “practically” necessary to water down the ambitions of rewilding and, at best, fit nature in between the cracks in a thoroughly anthropized world: either we stake our hope on the eventual (or imminent) extinction of Homo sapiens – the realistic option – or we adjoin our ambitions for rewilding to a reciprocal downsizing of the human population and downscaling and localisation of human activity (which, imho, are independently necessary to make human life itself sufferable).  

A Caveat on Evolution, Extinction, and Morality

So that, in broad strokes, is the theoretical basis of my attraction to rewilding – or the ideas that were originally called such. However, before I go on to argue that ‘rewilding’ means something different in Europe (the continent whereon I traipse in my personal pursuit of islandness), I need to issue one important disclaimer about my own moral position and where it potentially diverges from others who were and are attracted to this self-same rewilding movement. To my knowledge, none of Foreman, Soulé, or any other rewilding pioneer advanced the position that evolutionary processes are the most important object of conservation, or that the integrity of self-willed evolutionary processes should generally take precedence over the protection of biodiversity. Instead, the authors trend the goals as compatible, and at least rhetorically they generally place greater emphasis on the importance of safeguarding biodiversity and preventing extinction. 

I plan to say more, in future writing, to distinguish the “evolution-first” position from the “biodiversity-first” position as two distinct and competing ecocentric views, and defend the former against the latter (I have already foreshadowed this in “In Memory of Anholt as I Never Knew Her” and I say more below in §3.2.1). This might seem like a triviality – a philosopher’s distinction. I suppose it is a philosopher’s distinction in a sense: I’m a philosopher and I’m making it. Despite this, the distinction is substantive with practical differences for conservation, some of which emerge in the assessment of different things called ‘rewilding’. The Wildlands Project did indeed aspire to preserve both biodiversity and evolutionary processes – simultaneously, both through the protection of large self-willed landscapes – and the conflation of these separate ecocentric goals never bothered me when I first read Rewilding North America and related material. I was not thinking at that time about the use of proxy species, artificial selection (e.g. the Tauros Programme), or synthetic biology – methods that aim to increase biodiversity through human intervention whilst severing natural evolutionary chains – nor was I thinking about the supposition that some forms biodiversity could be dependent on agriculture or even more extreme situations of anthropogenic degradation of self-willed land (cf. Anholt). As I return to claim at this end of this essay (§3.2), the distinction between “evolution-first” and “biodiversity-first” conservation ethics turns out to be extremely relevant to the assessment of what’s called ‘rewilding’ in Europe, where the aforementioned ideas are unavoidable. It is also relevant to “Pleistocene rewilding” and “de-extinction” in the US – or anywhere, for that matter – although, fortunately, traditionalist organisations like The Rewilding Institute have not yet been overrun by these perversions.

In Rewilding North America, Foreman stresses the fact that Earth has been in the midst of a major human-caused extinction event since the Pleistocene, when our ancestors hunted charismatic megafauna to extinction with cascading ecological effects. A moral complication here, however, concerns the facts that (i) extinction is forever, (ii) the Pleistocene was a long time ago, and (iii) recovery from extinction is itself a nature-led process. We must, then, be cautious in considering to what extent – if at all – it is morally permissible to intervene to attempt to undo past extinctions and their effects rather than merely prevent future ones. After all, Nature has proven herself more than capable of recovering from even greater extinction events at least five times in the past.

On my view, humility and respect for natural evolutionary processes encompasses respect and deference for Nature’s own creative self-directed process of recovery from extinction. Thus, I tend to harbour considerable antipathy toward human obstruction of Nature’s self-recovery from the Pleistocene extinctions, no matter how well-meaning in intent. There is room for moral disagreement here amongst even “traditional” rewilders, and my own position might well be what ultimately gets me in trouble with the rewilding movement – should it decide, say, to converge around introductions of “highly interactive” species, whether they are native wild species or de-domesticated proxies or lab-manufactured prehistorical re-enactments. I will come back to all this later (§3.2.3).

Ecological recovery takes time, and the North American rewilding movement has been known for long-term thinking. Foreman notes in Rewilding North America that the Wildlands Project developed a vision for 100 years in the future. If I were asked how forward-looking conservationists should be, I would suggest something a bit longer still: conservation needs to think 10 million years into the future. I base this on an article published in Nature Ecology & Evolution a few years back that argued that 10 million years represents Nature’s self-imposed extinction recovery speed limit. With an extinction event already well underway, we’d be fools to expect less. We can still try to prolong the life to existing biological lineages, protect more biodiversity for evolution to draw upon moving forward, protect large landscapes to serve as an arena for evolutionary processes, and of course scale back our destructive enterprises (including procreating) as much as possible – but, mostly, we must have patience and confidence that Nature will find her own novel and creative way forward, given time.

Most conservationists would probably respond to my “forward-looking” approach with what is commonly known in philosophical parlance as an incredulous stare. At minimum, however, I believe that someone ought to strive to develop a position that genuinely venerates deep-time evolution; it is not as though Earth herself is going to publish it. Henry David Thoreau’s posthumously published “Walking” (1862) is among my favourite essays ever written, in large part for its depiction of the conjunction of pedestrian-based living and the pursuit of wildness, which so much resembles my own goal in life (see “Around the World for a Ten Miles’ Radius”). In this context, though, I must cite the opening sentences: “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…”

It did nothing to dampen my opinion of Dave Foreman when I learned that he had campaigned for Barry Goldwater. So had my father, after all, who tried his best to raise me in the mould (“Au! H2O!”). So I will further add a slogan that I’ve adapted: moderation in pursuit of ecological civilisation is no virtue; extremism in defence of wild Nature is no vice

It is important to distinguish my following semantic position (§2) from my moral one. I adopt a moral position that many will find extreme, and I don’t necessarily expect to convert anyone to it, although I will continue to speak in its favour. My semantic position, in contrast, is an entirely mundane descriptive claim: speakers systematically use the word ‘rewilding’ to refer to something different in Europe than in North America. Whether one supports North American rewilding, European nature development (“rewilding”), or neither, this semantic difference needs to be acknowledged, especially as it corresponds to empirical and ethical disagreements.

Postscript 

On the evening of 19 September 2022, I was staying with a friend in Columbus, 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). Having come for a visit after many months in Europe, I had just retrieved my copy of Rewilding North America to reread and thereby to remind myself why in the hell I ever thought I was interested in rewilding. 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…”  

I hope that my 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.

2. Transatlantic Ambiguity in ‘Rewilding’ 

Ludwig Wittgenstein is often credited with laying the theoretical basis for the idea of a cluster concept in semantics. Some terms (such as ‘game’) cannot be given a precise definition; instead, their denotata share only what he calls family resemblances, “a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing” (see Philosophical Investigations, §66-67). 

In Wittgensteinian tradition, I have at times suggested that ‘rewilding’ expresses a clusterf–ked concept, where a “clusterf–ked concept” is a specific type of cluster concept in which the network of associated attributes has become so deeply muddled, confused, and even self-contradictory that the term and concept are essentially worthless. As long as commentators speak as though ‘rewilding’ is univocal rather than ambiguous, that remains my best gloss on the situation. As I describe below, speakers in North America and Europe associate strikingly different conceptual prototypes with the term ‘rewilding’ – different to the extent that the type European use of ‘rewilding’ came off to me as doublethink when I kept encountering it in Denmark (§2.2). The continental divide will be my focus. Alternatively, though, we could consider typologies that commentators have proposed, such as rewilding, Pleistocene rewilding, passive rewilding, and translocation rewilding in Nogués-Bravo et al (2016, “Rewilding is the new Pandora’s box in conservation,” Current Biology). 

The conceptual differences here run deep, reflecting fundamentally different aspirations and beliefs concerning the appropriate type and degree of human intervention in self-willed nature. It is a stretch, to say the least, to claim that these four “types of rewilding” are merely four flavours of the same basic thing. Take, for example, the inherent tension between the “do nothing” approach of passive rewilding and the radical interventionism Pleistocene rewilding, which attempt to create analogues of communities of megafauna over 10,000 years extinct, through the use of “proxy species” or even synthetic biology. (Conceivably, a different version of this paper might focus on the division internal to North American between “traditional” rewilding and “Pleistocene rewilding” as popularised by Josh Donlan in a paper in Nature also titled “Rewilding North America” (2005); however, it so happens that it’s been in the European context, not the American one, where I’ve been subjected to the neo-Pleistocene aspirations.) 

Nogués-Bravo et al admit the extreme variance here… before immediately proceeding to “advocate reaching a consensus among definitions within the panchreston of rewilding.” That is a decidedly odd request, given the degree of normative and/or empirical disagreement between proponents of the respective four different things. I believe it would be much more sensible to prescribe disambiguation and schisms, not forced unification. 

2.1 ‘Rewilding’ Prototypes: North American vs Europe 

My claim in this section is that the word ‘rewilding’ does not express the same concept in its dominant traditions of use in North America and Europe. I substantiate this claim with the observation that each tradition of use corresponds to very different prototypes, which systematically lead to different (default) inferences when the term is used. 

For example, in Denmark, the country with which I am most familiar, ‘rewilding’ is used to refer to a specific type of conservation grazing (a familiar and widespread practice in the country) that incorporates either native wild animals or (more typically) domesticated animals chosen as analogues or “proxies” for extinct wild relatives, which are “free-living” (minimally managed) in their enclosures year-round (§2.2). The structure of the Danish projects closely resembles globally known European “rewilding” prototypes (like the controversial Oostvaardersplassen), but none of them bear even a family resemblance to prototypes of North American rewilding, such as the proposed continental wildways of the Wildlands Project and the ubiquitous emphasis on the “3Cs” (Cores, Corridors, Carnivores).

2.1.0 Background: “Why the f–k aren’t people already acknowledging this?”

I will not conduct a literature review here. Suffice it to say that, whenever the topic is mentioned, there seems to be nearly unanimous agreement that North American “rewilding” emphasises carnivores whereas European “rewilding” emphasises herbivores, and that European “rewilding” has different roots, specifically as an outgrowth or rebranding of the concept “nature development” (natuurontwikkeling), which originated as an “offensive strategy for nature conservation in the Netherlands” (to use the exact words of Frans Vera and Fred Baerselman in “Nature Development: An exploratory study for the construction of ecological networks,” 1995).

These facts are not in dispute, and they will be salient to anyone who conducts even a superficial cross-continental comparison. The reason I am writing this is that I find it baffling – and disturbing – that so few have taken the step, which seems obvious to me, to posit that the word ‘rewilding’ is simply ambiguous. After familiarising myself with the Danish context, I concluded that proponents of North American and European “rewilding” are no more in the same game than players of North American and European “football” (despite superficial similarities like running around on a field and trying to score goals against an opposing team). Although there is some superficial similarity in the expressed goals and aspirations of natuurontwikkeling and North American rewilding, there are also many salient differences. In any case, they are distinct traditions and ought to be treated as such – not coerced into a forced unity due to their adoption of the same word

I sometimes feel a bit like the experimental subject in Solomon Asch’s conformity experiment when surrounded by senior colleagues who fail to acknowledge the asymmetry (“you think the lines are the same length?! really?!”). This lack of open acknowledgement is made only stranger by the fact that a few do openly acknowledge it, in no uncertain terms. Mark Fisher, most notably, has been sharply criticising the rebranding of nature development and naturalistic grazing as ‘rewilding’ for years in his blog at www.self-willed-land.org.uk. In a 2013 post speaking directly to the issue (“What is rewilding?”), Fisher writes, “[I]n the absence of any other voice, the agenda that is now attached to ‘rewilding’ is livestock grazing, and will increasingly, through the persistence of the grazing advocates, be the only approach to wilder land that the public will hear.”

Well, that is precisely the situation I encountered in Denmark in 2021-22 (§2.2), and it is rather surprising that is hasn’t generated more concern from those of us allured by the traditional conception of rewilding, for superficially it seems in almost diametrical opposition to what we support (as Fisher continues, “Thus whereas the axiom should be of a withdrawal of farming as an absolute pre-condition of moving along the wild land spectrum, this will continue to be disavowed …”). I’ll come back to that in §3.    

The failure of Americans to address this issue becomes weirder when one realises that Fisher also contributed a forthright and trenchant piece to The Rewilding Institute’s Rewilding Earth on the “drifting in meaning” in the term in Europe: “Drifting from Rewilding” (2019). When I encountered the piece in the Rewilding Earth: Best of 2019 anthology, I took for granted that it probably represented a consensus position on the semantic ambiguity in the North American and European senses of ‘rewilding’ and their correlative assumptions about ecology. (After spending some time in Denmark, my thoughts evolved into “Oh god I need to find that ‘meaning drift’ piece in Rewilding Earth again; it really is happening and it’s kinda freaking me out…”) I guess I was wrong to assume consensus. Recently, I noticed “Drifting from Rewilding” is called “controversial” by editors of the anthology, and in a later Rewilding Earth post, David Schwartz criticises Fisher for insisting on a “canonical and purist definition” (“European Experiments in Rewilding: Oostvaardersplassen,” 2019). 

That strikes me as a strange criticism. From a prescriptivist standpoint, there are good reasons to disavow this European usage of ‘rewilding’ given its semantic associations with grazing projects that seemingly defy basic ecological and ethical assumptions of the North American rewilding movement; Fisher makes this point quite clearly (more on such tensions in §3; see also the critical writings of Helen Kopnina, Simon Leadbeater, and Paul Cryer on this particular case study, such as “Learning to Rewild: Examining the Failed Case of the Dutch ‘New Wilderness’ Oostvaardersplassen,” 2019).

But Schwartz’s is also a strange reaction to Fisher’s piece even from the standpoint of descriptive semantics — my concern for the this section. Insofar as he describes the use of ‘rewilding’ in Europe as a drift in meaning, Fisher seems just to be saying something factually true. Semantic drift is a common phenomenon of natural language, and it does sure look what has happened here, when the word ‘rewilding’ got affixed in Europe to the tradition of nature development and prototypes like Oostvaardersplassen. It is hardly a “purist” point to correctly identify that a word means different things in different contexts, or to insist that this ambiguity be cleared up on pain of rampant confusion.

It is worth disentangling the semantic point from the ecological and ethical ones. My first claim 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 critical ecological and ethical disagreements (§3). 

2.1.1 North American Prototypes

I won’t go into much detail on the prototypes of rewilding in North America [*], since I’ve been imagining myself implicitly addressing North American rewilding proponents as I write this piece, and I since assume that most other readers (if any) will be familiar with the idea of rewilding (if at all) through the North American context – such as the much-heralded example of the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park, the pioneering work of Dave Foreman, or the ubiquitously cited “Rewilding and Biodiversity: Complementary Goals for Continental Conservation” article by Michael Soulè and Reed Noss, which famously articulated the “3Cs” of rewilding: Cores, Corridors, and Carnivores. More recently, even much of the laity will have heard of the much publicised proposal to reintroduce wolves and beavers in the Western US (Ripple et al, 2022, “Rewilding the American West,” BioScience). 

In North America, the 3Cs remain the core attributes (no pun intended) of the conceptual prototype. The last I checked, The Rewilding Institute’s “What Is Rewilding?” page continues to state, in big bold letters, “The shorthand definition of Rewilding is the ‘3 C’s’ – conservation of Cores, Corridors, and Carnivores.” The reintroduction of recently extirpated large carnivores like wolves and cougars (or pumas or mountain lions) is prototypical, as is an emphasis on the ecology of trophic cascades and the need for predators to limit overbrowsing and overgrazing by herbivores like deer and elk. Habitat connectivity is a dominant theme in practice as well as theory – with a goal of large-scale “continental wildways” adjoined to the celebration of paradigmatic local successes like dam removals or the construction of wildlife crossings over roadways. Outside of the 3Cs, themes like natural disturbance regimes (e.g. wildfire), removal of livestock from public lands, and protection of old growth forests are common in both past and present discourse. And whether or not non-anthropocentrism is considered to be semantically entailed by ‘rewilding’, there is a long-standing close conceptual link between the North American rewilding movement and ecocentrism or biocentrism in morality, manifest in the former journal Wild Earth.    

[*] For those who want background on the origin and subsequent development of the North American concept beyond its salient prototypical features, see Mark Fisher’s “Natural Science and Spatial Approach of Rewilding: Evolution in meaning of rewilding in Wild Earth and The Wildlands Project” (2020), an extremely thorough etymology and analysis. 

2.1.2 European Prototypes 1: Oostvaardersplassen

In Europe, on the other hand, the most widely cited example of what is called ‘rewilding’ is probably the Dutch project Oostvaardersplassen (OVP). The distinctive attributes of Oostvaardersplassen included (a) the introduction of high numbers of large herbivores meant to represent indigenous communities of species, especially red deer, Konik ponies (intended as a proxy species for the extinct tarpan), and Heck cattle (intended as a proxy species for the extinct auroch), and (b) the fact that these herbivores were to be free-living, e.g., not provided with supplemental food or cover during the winter. The starvation of large numbers of these “free-living” herbivores resulted in widespread animosity toward OVP and the concept of “rewilding” as used in the Netherlands (and, through expansion, most or all of Europe). 

There are many sources describing OVP in more detail, including the previously cited critical pieces by Fisher and Kopnina, Leadbeater, and Cryer and the far more optimistic piece by Schwartz. To learn useful Dutch terms while reading an overview of OVP’s ecological collapse, visit “The Oostvaardersplassen – What went wrong?” (2018) in the Dutch Language Blog.   

For now, it suffices to note that Oostvaardersplassen embodies multiple prototypical characteristics of projects labelled ‘rewilding’ in Europe. The practice of “naturalistic grazing” is perhaps most central, and with it an emphasis on conservation of open landscapes and acceptance of Frans Vera’s “wood pasture hypothesis” that open or “mosaic” landscapes, rather than closed-canopy forests, represent the natural landscape of post-glacial Europe. Other tightly associated attributes include the introduction of species and communities of large herbivores – “free-living” in “natural densities” – including non-wild “de-domesticated” breeds meant to replicate the phenotype and ecological role of Pleistocene fauna.

Clearly, OVP is something quite different from prototypical rewilding in North America. Carnivores and corridors are salient in their absence. Carnivore reintroduction was never part of the conversation about OVP, despite the fact that its depletion of vegetation by unchecked grazing and browsing exemplifies the very type of ecological breakdown that the restoration of top-level predators is supposed to prevent (reminding strongly of Leopold’s “Thinking Like a Mountain”). Moreover, the reserve is fenced, precluding movement of animals into and out from the reserve, and surrounded by motorways and development anyhow. Furthermore, unlike stereotypical species reintroductions in the North American context, the Konik ponies and Heck cattle are neither native nor wild species.

It is questionable whether OVP could even be considered a “borderline case” of the North American concept. Certainly, it is not a prototypical case, as even American OVP sympathisers tend to admit. For example, in his apology for OVP, Schwartz states, “OVP certainly is not rewilding in the Foreman/Soule/Noss sense of cores, carnivores, and corridors,” which seems just to make Fisher’s point about drift in meaning: ‘rewilding’ means something different as it’s come to be used in Europe. 

What cannot be underemphasised is that in the European context OVP is not considered a controversial borderline case of “rewilding” but a core case, a conceptual prototype. In the European context, that is, OVP is essentially the example that defines the term. It is not that Europeans use the term ‘rewilding’ more broadly or loosely to accommodate more peripheral cases (as Schwartz perhaps implicates?); it is that the concepts differ at the very core. This is further reflected in the transference of the term to other projects throughout Europe. 

2.1.3 European Prototypes 2: Knepp “Wildland”

Possibly the second most famous project dubbed ‘rewilding’ in Europe, England’s Knepp Estate – er, I mean, Knepp Wildland – was directly inspired by OVP and Frans Vera, implementing naturalistic grazing by five herbivore species (Old English longhorn cattle, Exmoor ponies, Tamworth pigs, red deer, fallow deer, roe deer). In at least one respect, it diverges even farther than OVP from North American rewilding: it is still a working farm. Whereas OVP infamously allowed herd sizes to decrease in winter via the natural processes of starvation, Knepp selectively culls its livestock to enable “our animals to overwinter in sustainable herd sizes” and sells the product (see “The Wild Range Selection”). 

To some extent, the semantic divergence of ‘rewilding’ might actually be obscured by the fact that Knepp is undeniably in the business of agriculture. When speaking loosely, some rewilding enthusiasts do say things like that their neighbours “rewilded their lawn” by deliberately ceasing to mow… or perhaps that Sir Charles Burrell “rewilded his farm” by de-intensifying its grazing practices. But in the North American tradition, such usages of ‘rewilding’ can only be regarded as loose use, a liberal expansion or broadening of the original concept, or perhaps a conceptual metaphor, shifting the idea of “to make more wild” from its original domain of entire continents to other domains like lawns, farms, cities, or ourselves. Beneath it all, the core notion of ‘rewilding’ is that of continental-scale conservation with large wilderness cores, habitat corridors for wildlife movement, restoration of large carnivores, natural disturbance regimes, and so on. I personally have no qualms about mere loose or figurative use of the term, as long as the original meaning is not forgotten.

However, as with OVP, the essential point is that the Knepp Estate is put forth in the British and European contexts as a paradigmatic instance of what is meant by ‘rewilding’ – ‘rewilding’ simpliciter, that is, not merely ‘rewilding’ on some loose or metaphorical use. Arguably, this has helped to sharpen the European concept in a way that makes its difference from the American concept even more stark: if enough other prototypical attributes are met (e.g. naturalistic grazing, attempt to replicate indigenous population of herbivores with domesticated proxies, emphasis on restoring an open/mosaic landscape, etc), then even the absence of agriculture isn’t needed for a project to be considered an exemplar of ‘rewilding’.

Now, neither the North American nor the European sense of ‘rewilding’ has a sharp definition. Most terms of natural language do not. I believe that each respect sense of the word is best analysed as a cluster concept, with characteristic attributes defined by their prototypes, but the important claim is that each expresses a different cluster concept. This disentangling of distinct cluster concepts is necessary to resolve the utter semantic clusterf–k that rewilding discourse so often appears, especially in the global context.

Auroch proxy (?). Melby Overdrev, Nordsjælland.

2.2 Impressions of an American Rewilding Enthusiast in Denmark

Due to their relative fame and attention in the international press, Oostvaardersplassen and the Knepp Estate are examples that no commentator can ignore when analysing the use of ‘rewilding’ within Europe. However, neither OVP nor Knepp was the major impetus behind my own concern for the prevalence of naturalistic grazing in Europe, its rebranding as ‘rewilding’, and the failure of American rewilding supporters to recognise this rebranding as ambiguity or misuse of the term. As an autobiographical point, what incited me to care about these issues was my experience in Denmark as a multi-month “tourist” (i.e. digital nomad). Denmark has a special place in my heart as the country in which I became aware of the real-world possibility of car-free rural living – an experience that upended my life by rendering me incapable to accept any other lifestyle, even if it meant leaving my homeland and living abroad on tourist visas (and relocating to a continent with nothing analogous to North America’s rewilding movement).

So, I began with a personal love for Denmark, and this ramified into a desire for involvement with engaging conservation projects in the country. There were two main reasons for this. First, I had begun to experience tremendous “eco-anxiety” and realised that part of the solution, most likely, would require direct involvement in restoration work. I had joined a few conservation-related organisations in my home region, but I found it unsatisfying to focus on efforts in the place I was desperate to leave rather than a place I was longing to live. Second, I knew that the best way to secure a long-stay visa in a place like Denmark – which is what I wanted, not to live nomadically – would be to meet a local who’d hand me a job in the country (I don’t apply for jobs, but that’s another story). The most promising path, I reasoned, would be to begin by volunteering for a cause for which I was passionate, i.e., the protection of wild Nature. Thus, I got in this mindset of hoping that I could find some ambitious, ecocentrically grounded, and ecologically literate conservation effort in Denmark, perhaps akin to the Wildlands Project or The Rewilding Institute in the States. 

I never found that. I did learn that forests are surprisingly unpopular in Danish conservation, that domestic cattle are surprisingly popular, and that one cannot use the word ‘rewilding’ to indicate interest in large-scale conservation efforts involving habitat connectivity, large carnivores, and the absence of agriculture or other human use, since in Denmark the word ‘rewilding’ merely denotes a specific approach to the use of grazing animals to prevent the growth of vegetation (“naturlige græsning”).

In fact, I find myself largely in agreement with an opinion piece titled “Naturnationalparker, nej tak. Rewilding hører ikke hjemme i Danmark” (January 2022), including the specific horror at the thought that Tisvilde Hegn – a forest that has been very inspiring to me – might be ravaged by livestock. And when one reads how the author defines ‘rewilding’, it should be clear why my opposition to that thing is consistent with my support of what Foreman had in mind when he introduced the term: the Danish practice “involves fencing, for example, horses, cows, moose, or bison in forests and letting them live on what they find without any kind of care of supplemental feeding … It is called rewilding, even though neither horse nor cows are wild.” 

In retrospect, my entire argument for the semantic ambiguity of ‘rewilding’ could have consisted of nothing but such a quotation followed by a mic drop. Nonetheless, I will describe a few more specific things that I discovered: 

1. MANY instances of domestic cattle on “protected” land to “help nature” by “preventing the growth of trees and bushes”. From the outset, I found this both bizarre and off-putting. Granted, I have an aesthetic preference for forests over farms, and a gustatory preference for the avoidance of beef and cow’s milk, and I admit that arbitrary matters of taste are poor bases for conservation decisions. Still, I’d always taken for granted that there was ample scientific evidence that the cattle industry was detrimental to the environment, and that afforestation was generally a sign of ecological recovery. It was a little shocking, in any case, to find signage that presupposed that the regeneration of trees was a bad thing that should be prevented – as though this were simply common knowledge. On the other hand, I did realise that many species do prefer grassland and other types of open landscapes to forest, and back in Ohio I never protested the use of prescribed burns or other forms of human management to maintain such landscapes. So I tried to give conservation grazing the benefit of the doubt, and imagine that the cows were there to set fires. Or something.

I mention this not because these run-of-the-mill conservation grazing plots were labelled ‘rewilding’ but precisely because they weren’t. To understand what is called ‘rewilding’ within Europe, one must also understand how pervasive the practice of conservation grazing is. My American friends find it strange when I tell them tales of foreign lands where conservation areas are full of domestic livestock, yet in Denmark this is an established practice.

2. Anti-afforestation efforts to protect an extremely degraded landscape on the remote island of Anholt (which is otherwise hands-down among my favourite places I’ve lived). In the case of Anholt, there is no doubt that the expansive lichen heath (now called Ørkenen, “The Desert”) was originally covered in forest, prior to its nearly complete deforestation by humans. Despite this history, Ørkenen is now praised as a unique landscape and conservation priority. I describe this case at length in “In Memory of Anholt as I Never Knew Here” (July 2022). My fondness for Anholt, and subsequent heartbreak over the force subjugation of the island’s landscape, left me with deep scepticism of the European conservation industry and its emphasis on the preservation of open landscapes, especially as I now realise that Ørkenen is merely an extreme instance of a general trend of preserving degraded landscapes like heath. 

Once again, the relevance here isn’t that the subjugation of Anholt was labelled ‘rewilding’ – it wasn’t – but that this case study illuminates more background information that may be useful to contextualise “rewilding” in Europe: organisations like Rewilding Europe are helping to perpetuate a longer-standing and more widespread fixation on preserving open landscapes.

3. Molslaboratoriet. Molslaboratoriet, a 120 hectare enclosure in Nationalpark Mols Bjerge, brands itself as a “rewilding experiment” on the basis that Galloway cattle and Exmoor ponies have been introduced into the enclosure, where they live year-round without supplemental feeding. However, in compliance with national law, the fenced livestock are monitored on a daily basis, and sick or starving animals are removed (and park officials accept calls from visitors to check on animals of concern); thus, Molslaboratoriet lacks the particularly controversial aspect of OVP – the presence of sick and starving horses and cows left to die within the enclosure, their carcasses in plain view of visitors. This, of course, also removes part of what might have been said to have made OVP “wild” or “natural” in its original incarnation, moving in the direction of human management and plain ol’ animal husbandry. Despite this, Molslaboratoriet remains controversial for lack of attention to its herbivore herds, with detractors claiming to have seen starving and suffering cows or horses at the park (my main source here is the casual perusal of Danish conservation-related social media pages). 

Within Denmark, Molslaboratoriet seems to be the most well-known the prototype of so-called “rewilding” – perhaps along with bison introduction on Bornholm, another stereotypical case of introducing large herbivores (sans carnivores) for the express purpose of preventing the vegetational succession that would naturally occur in the absence of “humans, livestock, or machines” (as described on the linked Naturstyrelsen page). But Bornholm is way out there and really basically Sweden, and thus it was never so much the focus of my thought.

4. Lille Vildmose. Jutland’s raised bog Lille Vildmose was the first European Rewilding Network project that I visited, although I hadn’t realised it at the time of my visit, and the word ‘rewilding’ was not prominent on the park’s signage (that I noticed). What was most shocking to me was the description of the LIFE+ Nature project to restore the bog, which included the entrapment of a population of red deer in a fenced enclosure for the purpose of suppressing the growth of birch trees and other woody vegetation. The reintroduction of moose – the specific project vaunted by Rewilding Europe – was meant to serve the same purpose.

Unlike Anholt’s Ørkenen, the formation of the raised bog was not itself a product of extractivism but natural geological causes, and the LIFE+ initiative does purport to mitigate degradation of the bog landscape by anthropogenic causes, chiefly drainage for agriculture. The claim is that birch and other trees would not have grown on the bog but for the drainage, and that the tree growth leads to further draining of the bog – which is why conservationists desire to remove trees from the area, whether directly or through the service of cervids. 

I imagine that the description “reintroduction of moose to Lille Vildmose” would strike a North American audience as a more-or-less familiar example of rewilding – especially in contrast to domesticate-reliant projects like OVP, Knepp, and Molslaboratoriet – since the project does indeed involve the reintroduction of a native charismatic species, Alces alces. But context and motive also matter. As typifies European conservation (in my admittedly still limited experience), the reintroductions are driven by the recognition that large herbivores can be useful organic tools for restoration of an open landscape. The moose, like the red deer, have been introduced not to counteract the extirpation of native species per se, but to counteract (literally) downstream effects of agriculture drainage (i.e. tree growth). As such, they are fenced within the areas of the park that they’ve been enlisted to “restore” (entailing, for one, that the moose are not free so much as wander outside the enclosure to enjoy the more liberal laws on alcohol sales that no doubt enticed them to agree to relocate from Sweden to Denmark in the first place). 

Meanwhile, while corridors are thus purposefully absent, carnivores are neither encouraged nor excluded – according to an interview with Aage V. Jensen Naturfond’s Jacob Palsgaard Andersen regarding the sighting of a wolf in Lille Vildmose (“Ulv set i Lille Vildmose”). Andersen admits that Aage V. Jensen Naturfond makes no efforts to attract wolves to its conservation areas and that the organisation is neither a “supporter” nor “opponent” of wolves in Denmark. It is difficult to imagine an North American rewilding organisation declaring such a non-committal position on wolves, especially in an area where wolves have already been beginning to reestablish themselves.

5. Debates about “rewilding” that would seem utterly incoherent or nonsensical if we were to assume that the speakers were using the word ‘rewilding’ in the sense of Foreman, Soulé, Noss, and other American pathbreakers. For me, this linguistic evidence was the giveaway that ‘rewilding’ is simply a semantically ambiguous term. I hope that the descriptions of particular projects and prototypes are also useful for something, but as far as the overarching argument that ‘rewilding’ is an ambiguous rather than univocal term, nothing more is needed than to cite local sources such as the aforementioned “Rewilding hører ikke hjemme i Danmark” article or – the one that first got to me – Danmarks Naturfredningsforening’s statement piece “Ingen rewilding-dyr skal dø af sult eller lide i naturen” (“No rewilding – animals will die of hunger or suffer in nature”). Danmarks Naturfredningsforening (DN) is Denmark’s largest conservation NGO, and although the organisation is a staunch proponent of herbivore grazing in “natural” areas, it is also adamant to differentiate its activities from “rewilding” – on the basis that horses, cows, and other animals should not be left to starve behind fences.

Let’s pause here to reflect on how utterly ridiculous such objections would sound if speakers were using the word ‘rewilding’ in its traditional sense in North America: “Rewilding should not be implemented because it is unfair to allow fenced domesticated animals to go without adequate food and health care.” The appropriate response would be something along the lines of “W. T. F.” But I contend that DN and other Danish speakers who say such things are not necessarily ignorant or confused in their use of the word ‘rewilding’ – although they would do well to familiarise themselves with the American literature for its ecological and ethical insights – but merely using the word in accordance with a different tradition of use, one that has already become entrenched in their country and may be too late to reclaim.

6. Still more open landscape conservation, via horse grazing, at the behest of an organisation calling itself “Verdens Skove” (“The World’s Forests”) – and, oh, it’s also called ‘rewilding’. In the wake of the devastating experience of educating myself on Anholt’s history and conservation status (see my article specifically on this island), I attempted to see if any Danish organisations were actually committed to reforestation. After all, Denmark had without question been extensively deforested prior to 1800, and much of the “reforestation” that has occurred since that time has been in the form of conifer plantations (i.e. not forests).

I discovered the promisingly-named Verdens Skove only to discover that their vision of a “natural forest” in Denmark is, first and foremost, one with herbivores like boar and bison (see “Vi vil have mere vild skovnatur i Danmark”). As an added bonus, I learned that Verdens Skove has its own “rewilding” (its term) project, Tirsbæk Bakker, a 17 hectare enclosure on which Konik horses have been introduced to eat the vegetation. They are not provided with supplemental food during the winter, which means that they will clear the land of blackberry thickets, their winter food source (see “Rewilding ved Tirsbæk Bakker”). 

I never visited Tirsbæk Bakker, but, hey, look it’s another instance of what should be boringly familiar by now: in Europe, ‘rewilding’ is used to refer to a practice involving the introduction of (sometimes domesticated) herbivores in enclosed areas without predators to eat up the vegetation. I’m beginning to feel like I’m just beating a dead horse – which, come to think of it, is a really apt metaphor for the context [insert image of horse carcass putrefying at OVP]. 

7. A “carbon negative” beef farm at Klintholm Gods – and, oh, it too is called ‘rewilding’. In the summer of 2021, I left Columbus, Ohio on a one-way ticket to Copenhagen and headed directly to Møn, a Dark Sky Island and UNESCO Biodiversity Reserve. I remain enchanted by Møns Klint and its surrounding forests, and Stege is quite nice for a “city”, but as a non-eater of beef, I couldn’t help but scoff when I heard that the popular local farm and market Klintholm Gods was peddling “carbon-negative beef” – a phrase that seemed to disingenuously ignore the fact that methane is the greenhouse gas for which the beef industry is notoriously responsible. I didn’t think much else about it at the time, but later I visited the company’s website, only to discover that it also bills its farming as rewilding, on the basis that its grazing animals have access to their full enclosures 356 days of the year (I think they meant 365 days here, but give ‘em a break; Danish numbers are hard!) and that their grazing activity maintains an open landscape that allegedly promotes biodiversity. (Incidentally, ‘kokasser’ actually means faeces, not “coke boxes” as Google translate currently favours.) Never mind that Klintholm Gods, like Knepp, is straightforwardly an agricultural operation. 

8. The neo-Pleistocene “trophic rewilding” intellectual leadership of Jens-Christian Svenning (University of Aarhus). The idea of “trophic rewilding” was another thing I discovered while in Denmark, through the work of Jens-Christian Svenning, at time when I was briefly considering whether it would be worthwhile to seek a similar position to my present sinecure in a centre at some Danish university. I eventually decided against the idea altogether, but first I specifically ruled out Svenning’s Biodiversity Dynamics in a Changing World research centre.

Now, at the time I’d encountered the work of Svenning and his colleagues, I’d already become aware of the seeming ubiquity of conservation grazing, the Danish/European fascination with the conservation of open landscapes (including ones that are openly admitted to be the product of human-caused degradation), and the use of ‘rewilding’ as synonymous with a specific controversial type of conservation grazing that uses “free-living” livestock. However, these practices were seldom explicitly linked to restoring late Pleistocene or post-glacial fauna or landscapes. In the case of Anholt, the anti-afforestation efforts are unquestionably devoted to preserving a human-created landscape, and I suppose I often took for granted that many conservation grazing sites existed to protect “cultural landscapes”. 

It was in discovering Svenning that I not only learnt the phrase ‘trophic rewilding’ but was also really forced to reflect on the idea of Pleistocene rewilding (and, eventually, how much I cannot support it; §3.2.3). Svenning defines ‘trophic rewilding’ as “species introductions to restore top-down trophic interactions and associated trophic cascades to promote self-regulating biodiverse ecosystems” (Svenning et al, 2015, “Science for a wilder Anthropocene: Synthesis and future directions for trophic rewilding research,” PNAS). Okay, that so far just sounds like the Yellowstone wolves, but Svenning’s own interest is replicating communities of megaherbivores from the Pleistocene. In the aforecited article, he goes on: “a key development for trophic rewilding has been the proposal for ‘Pleistocene rewilding’, advocated to restore ecosystem function by rebuilding rich megafaunas, thereby overcoming the massive prehistoric extinctions linked to Homo sapiens’ global expansion …” I don’t support Pleistocene rewilding for moral reasons, as we’ll see, and I’ve not delved much into Svenning’s own palaeoecological research or published responses, but this helped to broadened the context in which I conceptualised the Danish herbivore grazing obsession. 

9. Femten nye naturnationalparker! Around the same time I last left Denmark, the government announced the establishment of 15 new “nature national parks” in the country – all involving large grazing animals like cows, horses, and bison being released into enclosures in forested areas to eat the vegetation (incidentally, this is all described immediately after the assertion that the forests will be left “untouched” and that no agriculture will take place in the nature parks; huh). Sound familiar?

I stopped following Danish conservation publications and social media around this time, but from what I noticed, most positive publicity seemed to shy away from the use of the term ‘rewilding’ – not because Danish environmental journalists are purists who believe the word should only be used in the sense expounded by Foreman, Soulé, and Noss, but because the word seems to have bad connotations amongst the Danish public, associated as it is with starving horses and cows. Some commenters did use the word. (N.B. It is worth stating again: the word ‘rewilding’ is sometimes deliberately avoided in Danish discourse due to negative associations with OVP and copycat projects. American rewilders shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that there’s some kind of rhetorical and strategic need to embrace that project; the opposite might be true.) 

10. Absence of evidence of uses of ‘rewilding’ in any way closer to its traditional North American sense. Despite investigations, I never encountered the term ‘rewilding’ used in Denmark to refer to anything other than naturalistic grazing. Specifically, I never found it used to refer to anything like large-scale connected habitat allowing the movement of wildlife including large carnivores – despite the fact that wolves have made their own way in and around the country, suggesting that something akin to the traditional North American concept of rewilding is indeed relevant in this small and nature-depleted country.

Synopsis – The preceding series of revelations made clear to me not only that ‘rewilding’ means something different – very different – in Denmark, but also that this meaning is embedded in a culture of conservation practices and goals that seemed on the whole rather alien. When speaking to a Danish or European audience, I would no longer dare utter the sentence “I support rewilding,” for I have come to expect that Danish and other European speakers familiar with the word ‘rewilding’ are likely to draw certain inferences that I don’t want to endorse. This seems like strong evidence that ‘rewilding’ is transatlantically ambiguous. 

Disclaimer: It has only been while preparing this post that I discovered the comprehensive report “Biodiversitetseffekter af rewilding” published by Aarhus Universitet in 2021 (in Danish). I’ve not yet read it, but as far as I can tell it really cements the semantic linkage between ‘rewilding’ and ‘naturlige græsning’. It will be interesting, though, to see the authors’ own perspective on why this should constitute ‘rewilding’ in its original sense. Maybe.

Permian Rewilding. Tisvilde Hegn, Nordsjælland.

2.3 Refarming Europe

For now I’ve stopped trying to involve myself in conservation projects in Denmark or elsewhere in Europe, but I still correspond with members of The Rewilding Institute, and I still think I support what they support. Yet I remain surprised and alarmed by the uncritical acceptance that what happens under the ‘rewilding’ label in Europe also deserves support. 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, sure, but it is well known that not all conservation organisations share the values and motives as TRI and its precursors, and they’re not all allies of the rewilding cause; see, e.g., Dave Foreman’s also excellent Take Back Conservation (2012). 

I have tried to think charitably about what – aside from wishful thinking – might persuade thoughtful and intelligent America 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 (considering the name, it would kinda seem 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 rewildingeurope.com 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 then I’m still flustered, for 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 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 carnivory). 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 (e.g. “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,” from the Return of the Lynx donation page). 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 – I mean, by the herbivores.

Mark Fisher often refers to Rewilding Europe pejoratively as REFARMING Europe, but 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; see also GrazeLIFE).

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.  

Contrast this with the common portrayal of spontaneous forest regeneration in New England following the abandonment of farmland. In North American rewilding literature, this is presented as an inspiring success. As Jon Leibowitz of the Northeast Wilderness Trust writes for The Rewilding Institute (“Rewilding Is Not an Exotic Idea”), “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.” 

In his poignant “Rebuilding after Collapse”, John Davis invokes New England’s spontaneous reforestation as a source of hope in the face of certain ecological catastrophe: “The resilience and renewability of life are manifest especially in those landscapes that humans have abandoned or allowed to recover after earlier exploitation. To cycle through the abandoned farm country of northern New England and New York, for instance, is to see Nature healing, rewilding, at a remarkable pace. Vermont has gone from 80% agricultural fields to 80% wooded in a matter of a few human generations. […] If humans can find the wisdom and humility to step back from large parts of the planet, wild Nature will rebound vigorously.”

Granted, the contexts differ, and what Nature wants for New England is not necessarily what Nature wants for Europe. But, in any case, these dissimilar cases are telling additions 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, focal “rewilding” projects are expressly meant to prevent the same, by re-intervening in areas where humans have already stepped back. 

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. On 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. Furthermore, if it’s taken for granted that something must be done to prevent afforestation of abandoned farmland, then the introduction of free-living herbivores does seem “wilder” than other options. But 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 Pleistocene simulation that don’t arise with respect to wilderness conservation or passive forest regeneration (see §3). In any case, 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 core or prototypical 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.

2.4 Semantic Speciation

Some speakers might take for granted that ‘rewilding’ means the same thing in North America and Europe because they implicitly defer to whomever started using the same word in both places. One might think “If it’s not the same thing, why did people start using the same neologism to refer to it?” If that’s what’s behind the curious acceptance of univocality, it seems to give too little credit to the fluidity, flexibility, and openness of natural language – which, yes, includes the potential for new senses of words to evolve from linguistic errors and abuses.

Even if the North American and European uses of ‘rewilding’ have a common ancestor, in some sense, they have taken on their own meanings that are distinct and non-synonymous. Semantic drift is an apt descriptor, but readers who prefer biology to linguistics might prefer to think of semantic speciation. The first writers to apply the term to OVP 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, the analogy is not perfect, and I am missing details as far as even the linguistic history goes, but the point is that word meanings can drift apart just as populations of 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 undergone the process. 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 and “drifted” meaning of ‘decimate’. 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 consider another example 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 species 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. 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.

In a chapter on OVP, Jozef Keulart asserts that ‘rewilding’ in Europe is synonymous with the Dutch term ‘nature development’ – but, oddly, without noting that ‘nature development’ is not synonymous with the original sense of ‘rewilding’ in North America (there seems to be some basic failure of the transitive property here). Keulartz goes on to “[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” (“Philosophical Boundary Work for Wildlife Conservation: The Case of the Oostvaardersplassen,” A Guide to Field Philosophy: Case Studies and Practical Strategies). To my ears, that sounds roughly tantamount to saying, “whereas North American biscuit-makers have emphasised breakfast food covered in gravy, British and, subsequently, European biscuit-makers have emphasised sweets to be consumed alongside tea.” I don’t mean to pick on Keulartz specifically here — that’s just a semi-arbitrary quote that I’d happened to have written down; I could have found others — but let me just say again how dumbfounded I am when commentators who are deeply aware of the history and use of the term ‘rewilding’ in Europe nonetheless make such claims without stopping to ask “Hey, wait, is ‘rewilding’ just an ambiguous term?” Are they all graduate student accomplices of Solomon Asch? Will I be paid for my participation and debriefed? For, surely, those lines are not actually the same length!

Note to philosophers – Maybe you are now thinking, “No, ‘rewilding’ can’t be an ambiguous term, because it would be felicitous to say to a European ‘Oostvaardersplassen is not rewilding,’ ‘Knepp is not rewilding,’ ‘Rewilding Europe doesn’t support rewilding,’ and so forth.” That would be a flawed semantic analysis. Speakers could still felicitously do such things with words even if ‘rewilding’ is ambiguous. Most likely, they would be performing what’s sometimes called metalinguistic negotiation – attempting to reclaim the meaning of ‘rewilding’ from its association with herbivores without carnivores, fenced enclosures, proxy species, the wood pasture hypothesis, and so on. Effectively, such speakers would be intentionally discrediting the European sense of ‘rewilding’ and treating the North American sense as the only correct use of the term. That is compatible with accepting that ‘rewilding’ is presently used ambiguously; it’s just to implicate the European usage is illegitimate and should be eliminated from the discourse. (I probably discuss this type of case somewhere in my dissertation, “Feigning Objectivity: ​​An Overlooked Conversational Strategy in Everyday Disputes” (2015), although metalinguistic negotiation wasn’t my focus. Tim Sundell wrote about it back then. I haven’t followed the literature to make new recommendations.)     

3. Ecological and Ethical Matters 

Once we accept that ‘rewilding’ expresses different concepts in North America and Europe, we realise that semantics doesn’t require us to see our transatlantic non-counterparts as de facto allies. Imagine European projects stripped of the ‘rewilding’ label (and just called something else like, oh, say, ‘nature development’). What would normal American rewilding advocates say about these projects if they weren’t primed by a linguistic association to look for similarities and points of agreement? I suspect that, were it not for the misleading label, the projects are ones that North American rewilders would sharply criticise. After all, they canonically involve the introduction of large herbivores without large carnivores (and, moreover, often for the purpose of preventing vegetation growth, just as rewilders fear will happen if herbivore populations within a landscape lack sufficient pressure from predation). 

From the description of European “rewilding” prototypes in §2, it should be amply clear that the practices and ideology of nature development in Europe is not merely different from rewilding in North America but incompatible with the latter’s basic precepts and assumptions, at least on the surface. Thus, if North American rewilders care at all about the prospects for wild Nature in Europe, they would be well advised to question and critique the prominence of naturalistic grazing, anti-afforestation efforts, the almost complete neglect of Corridors and Carnivores, the use of non-native proxy species, and so forth. Leave aside the fact that Europeans happen to use the word ‘rewilding’ to talk about this stuff. This is not a mere matter of semantic purity. Disambiguation is important for the sake of clarity, but the issues here go far beyond perspicuity in language: the semantic distinction matters because we need space for clear and open debate on what is best for wild Nature. 

On occasion, American proponents of rewilding give European nature development projects a pass as worthy restoration activities, even if not “rewilding” in the traditional sense, with the excuse that Europe is much denser and more developed than North America and can’t accommodate the same types of continent-scale conservation projects. And, yes, to some extent – okay, to a large extent – we should expect efforts to protect and restore self-willed Nature to look different in North America and Europe. Overall, Europe is denser and more developed, with a much longer history of intensive exploitation by Europeans, and there are differences between the native biotic communities in the two continents. There are objective differences in the present starting point, and there are objective differences in the past natural history. All of this is undeniable, yet none of this is sufficient to account for the scope of the disparity between nature development and (North American) rewilding, which sometimes seem grounded in incompatible assumptions about how ecology itself works. As Fisher says in his “Drifting from Rewilding” piece, “ecology isn’t something different just because it is taking place in Europe.”

Below, I draw a distinction between ecological (§3.1) and ethical (§3.2) presuppositions. In reality, of course, the debates are an admixture of both at once, and it is not possible to cleanly separate the descriptive or empirical assumptions from the normative ones. Moreover, the following lists should not be taken as exhaustive; they are meant only to gesture to some examples of salient points of apparent disagreement. Finally, I mean only to lay out some groundwork for further enquiry; this is not the place to delve into an extensive review of the literature and research on each point of tension, let alone to attempt to resolve them. 

3.1 Ecological Tensions 

The (prima facie) ecological disagreements between stereotypical rewilding projects and stereotypical nature development projects don’t really need repeating. They arise directly from the comparisons of the “prototypes” in §2, and if you clicked the links to the articles by Fisher and Kopnina, Leadbeater, and Cryer, you will have learned more. 

But, for the sake of summary (with a couple of new additions), the following are some of the empirical issues that seem salient to me, and that seem like they should be salient to anyone who conducts the most casual comparison, say, of the positions of The Rewilding Institute and Rewilding Europe. I charitably call them “prima facie” ecological disagreements, leaving open the possibility that the disagreement is “merely apparent” in the unlikely event that the laws of ecology really do operate differently in Europe – or can otherwise be explained away. 

1. Carnivores and top-down regulation of ecosystems. One of the most salient differences of nature development from rewilding is the absence of carnivores. Within the rewilding movement, obviously, little has received more discussion than the importance of carnivores maintaining ecological balance (see, e.g., The Rewilding Institute’s summary “Top-down Regulation of Ecosystems by Large Carnivores”). Nature development, in contrast, emphasises “natural densities” of herbivores, but where the purported natural densities are created and maintained by human-led selection and regulation of population sizes. Predation by carnivores seems to be accepted where it occurs but in no way prioritised, and its importance is downplayed (e.g. the authors of the Rewilding Europe pamphlet “Natural Grazing: Practices in the Rewilding of Cattle and Horses” state, in a short section on the role of predation, “There is a lot of debate concerning the question of whether or not predators can control prey numbers”). Even if the human-managed population sizes equal those predicted for ecosystems with complete food webs, it seems that the nature development projects completely ignore the oft-discussed concept of ecologies of fear, whereby the constant presence of predators in a landscape impacts the behaviour of herbivores (e.g. where they choose to graze) independently of the effect of predation on population size. 

2. Connectivity and landscape permeability. Another cornerstone of North American rewilding has always been the establishment of wildlife corridors and connected habitat areas to counteract the deleterious effects of habitat fragmentation (see, e.g., TRI’s information page on “​Landscape Permeability”). In my experience, there is simply little discussion of the topic in Europe, where it seems to be ruled out as impractical, but in any case less important than grazing (e.g., the Rewilding Europe pamphlet cited above also states, “In Europe, even some of the largest rewilding areas will have no alternative to fencing. This will prevent animal migration to some extent, but is still preferable to no natural grazing at all”). There is an empirical question as to the extent to which the behaviour of the beloved herds of grazers actually do resemble that of wild populations given the lack of landscape permeability, and of course there are broader ecological questions regarding the full scope of what will be lost if conservationists give up on the possibility for connectivity.  

3. The impact of agriculture, including livestock grazing, on biodiversity. In my education, it was always the received wisdom that land conversion to agriculture has been the leading anthropogenic cause of biodiversity decline, and that livestock grazing is especially destructive; this is reiterated in most rewilding discourse in the North American tradition, with the cessation of livestock grazing on protected lands being a central demand. Then I travel to Europe, and there is significant discussion of species dependent on agriculture, with groups like Rewilding Europe claiming that half of the continent’s biodiversity depends in some way on the activity of large grazing animals. It’s an empirical question whether, where, and what type of agriculture and ranching impacts what species of wildlife in what way. Okay, I guess that’s actually many empirical questions.

4. The importance of forests for biodiversity and the impact of afforestation. Where the goal is to adjudicate between the desirable of passive afforestation versus the introduction of herds of large herbivores, this is the flipside of #3: there are empirical questions as to where, when, and in what way which species of wildlife depend on what types of forest habitat. Are there ecological differences between New England and Europe that would explain why the afforestation of abandoned farmland would be hailed as a conservation success in one region of the world but a threat to conservation in the other? What would the ecological and biological effects of passive afforestation in Europe actually be? 

5. The role of fire in shaping landscapes (and the role of herbivores in impacting fire regimes). In the North American context, wildfire and other natural disturbance such as windthrow is emphasised in the formation of mosaic landscapes. In fact, the importance of natural wildfire is so often noted that it could almost be a “4th C”: Combustion. Wildfire is frequently mentioned by Rewilding Europe, too, but in a very different context: it is a threat that can supposedly be mitigated by introducing large herbivores to graze the forest understories. The only time I have heard something similar in the context of US conservation was … oh, wait, that wasn’t conservation; I was thinking of when Donald Trump said, “you gotta clean your floors, you gotta clean your forests,” and credited Finns for raking and cleaning their forests. So the megaherbivores are being introduced into European forests to complete the work otherwise conducted by humans with rakes and vacuum cleaners? Sometimes, now, I do wonder… Seriously, though, there is a latent empirical disagreement here as to the both the relative importance of fire (and windthrow, etc) versus herbivory in opening forests and creating open or mosaic landscapes, and there is an empirical question as to the historical impact of grazers and browsers (if any) on impacting natural regimes.

6. The relationship between herbivory and invasive species. In Ohio, I always learned that overbrowsing by white-tailed deer was a major contributing cause to the spread of invasive plants in Eastern deciduous forests, since deer typically prefer to eat native plants to invasives like garlic mustard. As the deer gorge on native vegetation, they open the forest floor for the incursion of invasive species, resulting in an overall decline in plant biodiversity (part of the ecological breakdown that is ultimately blamed on the extirpation of wolves and pumas, leading to deer overpopulation; cf. point 1 above). In Denmark, in contrast, grazing by large herbivores was sometimes touted as a way to remove invasive vegetation and thereby give native plants space to flourish. I recall one article about Molslaboratoriet (ah, found it, this one) that stated that the cows and ponies ate the “problematic” vegetation whilst disbursing “other” (native?) plant species; how nifty! 

Granted, the United States and Europe have different native plants and different invasive ones. Still, this is a superficial curiosity that merits explanation: if European herbivores really do remove invasive vegetation and propagate native vegetation, we Americans would love an explanation of how exactly this works, given that we seem to encounter the opposite in our experience of grazing and browsing by herbivores in the absence of carnivores. 

7. The ecological impact of non-native “proxy species” (e.g. domesticated species, translocated species, synthetically engineering resurrections of the auroch) introduced as taxon substitutes. While I tend to oppose this practice on basic moral grounds as human overreach (§3.2.3), important empirical questions also arise as to what extent such substitutes would really play the ecological roles of their forebears, as well as any potential ecological hazards of the introduction of novel, non-native species. On the flip side, it is an empirical question as to what further ecological degradation will be risked (and on what time scale) if no taxon substitutes are introduced into an ecosystem.

8. The relationship between forests, livestock grazing, and climate change. This is a tangential point that emerges more out of PR than the scientific and moral defence of rewilding: the goal of rewilding is not climate change mitigation. However, given the climate exclusivist focus of the mainstream media, it follows that rewilding proponents sometimes like to talk about the potential for climate change mitigation. For many of us, I presume, the received view is that reforestation/afforestation is the nature-based climate change mitigation strategy par excellence, and that meanwhile cow burps are a horrendous contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. This standard consensus position fits well with a North American rewilding movement that commonly promotes forest regeneration, protection of old growth forests, and a significant reduction in livestock grazing. But European nature developers are anti-afforestation and pro-livestock, and thus they need a different story on climate. One line is that grazing in the arctic can help to mitigate climate change by increasing surface albedo, and there is the insistence that grasslands sequester carbon too. Yet even Svenning et al (2015) admit “it is also plausible that megafauna restoration in some cases may trade-off against climate change mitigation, decreasing carbon sequestration and increasing methane emissions. There is a strong need for research to further our understanding of these issues.”

9. Baseline conditions. Foundational to all else, perhaps, is debate about the relevant baseline conditions. This dispute, as in any case of ecological restoration, is partly empirical and partly normative. There is the empirical question of what the historical ecological conditions in an area actually were, and then there is the normative question of whether or not given time in (pre-)history is appropriate to serve as a baseline for present day restoration efforts. North America, like Europe, also had a great deal more megafauna in the Pleistocene, including large herbivores, yet if there is a North American equivalent to the Vera hypothesis, it plays no appreciative role in the work of The Rewilding Institute and its antecedents. This may be partly due to different beliefs about the historical conditions, or it may be partly due to actual differences in the environmental and ecological conditions of the two continents, but it seems to me like that biggest difference is that “mainstream” North American rewilding is not Pleistocene rewilding (despite the work of Josh Donlan and his occasional co-authorship with leading figures in the mainstream movement). The North American rewilding movement tends to work with much more recent baselines, e.g. pre-colonisation. Again, the selection of a baseline for restoration is to some extent normative, yet there are also further embedded empirical questions that may help to settle the normative ones, e.g., questions about the extent to which (if at all) conserving present biodiversity depends on restoring or replicating Pleistocene conditions. Other empirical questions, of course, are simply what these conditions were (e.g. open landscapes versus closed-canopy forests) and how they got that way (e.g. whether openings in forests are attributable to fire and windthrow or grazing animals). 

I’m sure there are other points of (apparent) disagreement about the facts, but the above eight issues are ones that have struck me as especially prominent, and that seem like they’d be salient to anyone make a cursory comparison between the work of, e.g., The Rewilding Institute and Rewilding Europe. I am not an ecologist, but I am a philosopher, and it is my job to point out logical inconsistencies – and these are seem that deep enough to make me unsure why anyone who’s genuinely concerned about the protection of wild Nature would ever gloss over them for the sake of some kind of pretence at international coalition-building. Again, I’m a novice here, but getting the facts about ecology right seems like it could be kinda important for successful ecological restoration, and I would hope that insistence on correct science isn’t the kind of thing that gets one dismissed as a purist or idealist.  

At the same time, certain empirical questions can be rendered irrelevant by normative premises. For example, if it is simply inappropriate to attempt to recreate ecological communities of the Pleistocene, then it’s a moot question as to what those communities were. And, as a reminder, I am openly idealist as f–k when it comes to ecocentric ethics. It is to a few ethical correlates of the rewilding / nature development divide that I now turn.

3.2 Ethical Tensions 

In this concluding section, I return full circle to a discussion of the ethical intuitions that drove my initial fascination with the rewilding movement, especially via my reading of Dave Foreman’s Rewilding North America, as summarised in §1: respect for the autonomy of Nature; reverence for self-willed, non-teleological evolutionary processes; the human virtues of humility, modesty, and restraint. This time, however, I draw upon them for a very different purpose: to explain the foundations of my discontent with nature development (“rewilding”) as well as the ideas of “trophic” and “Pleistocene” rewilding more generally. I maintain that the rift between the North American and European meanings of ‘rewilding’ betrays normative disagreements that potentially strike to the heart of conservation ethics, and do so in a way that is (largely) irrespective of the solutions to the empirical disagreements described above. 

I have already noted that an ecocentric worldview, which was (and is) integral to the North American rewilding movement, is not as tightly associated with the concept called ‘rewilding’ in Europe – if it is associated with it at all. In their incisive takedown of the Oostvaardersplassen “experiment”, Kopina, Leadbeater, and Cryer (2019) also take a well-placed strike at the “enviro-resourcism” in the rhetoric of Rewilding Britain and Rewilding Europe: “The first principle of Rewilding Britain concerns ‘people, communities and livelihoods’ and the role for animals is to be sustainably harvested through hunting and fishing. The Rewilding Europe website emphasizes human recreation and seeks business justifications for rewilding areas. The weft and web of this fundamentally anthropocentric outlook supports ecological processes that are ‘useful’ for human welfare.”

Kopina, Leadbeater, and Cryer focus on ethical obligations to individual animals. This is not my focus, and anyhow there’ve been many voices speaking out regarding the animal welfare aspect of OVP and other naturalistic grazing projects. Whereas animal rights advocacy can present itself as ecologically naïve to a fault (cf. Foreman’s chapter in Take Back Conservation), my own interest is holistic ecological ethics, and I am primarily concerned with human moral obligations to self-willed Nature as such. Starvation, suffering, and death are all natural processes in the self-regulation of ecosystems and the open-ended saga of evolution.

The fate of the grazers at OVP was tragic, to be sure, but this is not merely because so many starved or were culled to prevent starvation, but because they were never genuinely “free-living” to begin with. Their environment was hardly natural, constrained as it was by fences, development, and human-selected initial conditions. The introduced animals were not treated as “self-willed beasts” but non-consenting subjects in an unscientific experiment. My central objection is not to the suffering of individual animals but to the imposition of human will under the guise of promoting self-willed Nature, and here it is not merely the treatment of individual animals that is at issue (although it is symptomatic) but the overall structure of the projects and the motives behind them.

3.2.1 Biodiversity is not Bedrock

Before discussing what I perceive as tensions between nature development (European “rewilding”) and moral obligations to self-willed Nature (§3.2.2) and respect for self-directed evolutionary processes (§3.2.3), I want to reassert a point I made near the outset: I deny that preservation of biodiversity is moral bedrock. This, it turns out, is highly relevant to both criticisms. It might also supersede some of the empirical questions regarding the type or extent of human activity that does or does not prevent species loss, although it must be said that good factual information on this score is also critical to honing moral intuitions.

There was, initially, a very simple thought behind my revelation that “biodiversity is good” cannot be the foundation axiom for an ecocentric ethic: if biodiversity was moral bedrock, then it would seem to follow that we ought to bioengineer a whole bunch of different novel forms of life to release into the wild. This, however, seems quite clearly to degrade Nature rather than to enhance it – and it seems to be a degradation in itself, irrespective of the consequences of releasing novel species. Even if bioengineered species could result in an increase in biodiversity on Earth, the act of populating Earth with such human contrivances intuitively seems to subtract value rather than to add it; it seems like pollution rather than enhancement. (The “biodiversity-first” position also seemed like it could imply other counterintuitive conclusions, such as that tropical regions are intrinsically better than polar regions… but, anyhow, I will write a more extensive piece on this topic later.) 

Long story short, I eventually settled on the view that the natural process of evolution is what’s fundamentally good in itself, and that the appropriate human attitude towards it is one of deference, restraint, and reverence. We must remain curious and humble, admitting that our young species can’t expect itself to do better than Nature herself at what Nature’s been doing for billions of years. Biodiversity does have intrinsic value, but as the engineer behind Earth’s ever-changing array of diverse lifeforms, it’s the underlying evolutionary process that possesses a more fundamental level of intrinsic value, and when there is a tension between promoting biodiversity and preserving the natural course of evolution – as in my thought experiment in which humans meddled in evolution by introducing a panoply of artificially engineered organisms into the wild – then the latter must trump the former. 

Years later, I would think about biodiversity in a very different context, when contemplating the possibility that some biodiversity might depend on degraded landscapes. This became the central topic of “In Memory of Anholt as I Never Knew Her” (July 2022), where I raised the question, “When is the prima facie moral good of preserving biodiversity defeated by the moral obligation to respect the autonomy of self-willed land?” Contemplating the case of anthropogenically devastated island of Anholt, I argued that the greater obligation is to allow the will of the land to assert itself, even though this would entail eventual reforestation and the likely loss of the lichen diversity associated with the present deforested wasteland.

In that piece, I relied on a thought experiment to argue that the moral obligations to self-willed, autonomous landscape can override the prima facie moral responsibility to prevent species extinctions. Serendipitously, however, a Twitter follower subsequently jumped in with an interesting real-world example (see this thread): Ditrichum cornubicum, a critically endangered bryophyte that is known from only two former copper mining sites; to protect this rare moss, conservationists deliberately prevent the land from naturally recovering from the impact of extractive industry. I find it utterly appalling that the resilience of self-willed Nature is suppressed in this way, even if the goal is to prevent the extinction of a rare species.

The upshot is this: I am not necessarily disposed to accept that a conservation action is right even if the goal is to protect biodiversity (and, indeed, even if it does protect biodiversity). Thus, for the purpose of subsequent discussion, it is unnecessary to settle all of the empirical questions raised above; I can even leave open the possibility that Rewilding Europe and ilk are correct that agriculture pressure or natural grazing does safeguard some local biodiversity that would be lost if farmland were allowed to reforest. I focus here not on biodiversity but on what I consider to be more fundamental moral goods: the autonomy of self-willed Nature (§3.2.2) and integrity and authenticity of natural evolutionary processes (§3.2.3). 

3.2.2 Nature Development and Self-Willed Land

Despite their rhetoric, I have seen little evidence that proponents of “rewilding” in Europe genuinely aspire to restore self-willed, autonomous land. This is borne out in two ways: (A) the naturalistic grazing projects themselves often require continuous human intervention, despite which they are often presented as ends in themselves, with no discussion of future steps to natural self-governance; (B) it is at least suspect that the real baseline for restoration is itself a condition of human management, i.e., agricultural landscapes.

A. Human Intervention in Naturalistic Grazing 

As we have noted, animal welfare is the near universal theme heard from opponents of OVP, Molslaboratoriet, ​​Tirsbæk Bakker, and other naturalistic grazing projects involving fenced populations of domestic or semi-wild herbivores. Because of such public outcry – and even more because of laws governing the management of kept animals – we are unlikely to see any future occurrences of an OVP-style mass starvation event. In Denmark, and probably throughout the EU, laws require that fenced horses and cattle be regularly monitored for health, and treated, fed, or removed from the enclosure for care as necessary. As mentioned, this is practised in Molslaboratoriet and other Danish naturalistic grazing projects, such as the fifteen new Naturnationalparker. The upshot is that naturalistic grazing is effectively incompatible with self-willed Nature. No one wants to see a recurrence of the OVP famine, yet nature development proponents continue to demand naturalistic grazing (using domestic animals in enclosures); ergo, nature development moves even closer to just being agriculture.  

Now, it is commonly accepted that the restoration of self-willed Nature is compatible with some amount of initial human intervention, and often facilitated by it, as in the case of the removal of dams, roads, and other structures and infrastructure. The reintroduction of native wild species typically begins with human action, as does the removal of invasive species. This is also what Rewilding Europe claims to do: “We can give it a helping hand by creating the right conditions – by removing dykes and dams to free up rivers, by reducing active management of wildlife populations, by allowing natural forest regeneration [editor’s note: lol], and by reintroducing species that have disappeared as a result of man’s actions. Then we should step back and let nature manage itself” (“What is rewilding?”). Okay, that sounds good, but many characteristic European “rewilding” projects don’t involve “stepping back and letting nature manage itself” so much as stepping back in to monitor livestock populations.

If we want to maintain a charitable view of “rewilding” in Europe, we might imagine this response, “Sure, this monitoring is practically necessary at present, as are the fences, but that is only because we lack large enough areas of land to accommodate free-roaming megaherbivores. Eventually, we aspire to large areas of contiguous wildlands, where grazers can move freely and rely only on natural food sources. Analogously, you Americans love prescribed burning to maintain open landscapes. That is also not leaving the land of self-governance, but you accept it as practically necessary, since you can’t rely on natural wildfire at the present, even though your simultaneous long-term goal is to restore natural fire regimes in much larger areas of protected land. And as with your fires, so with our grazers.” 

That would, at least, clarify the goal and admit the limitations of naturalistic grazing as presently implemented in places like the seeming whole of Denmark – leaving us mainly to the empirical disputes about the relative ecological importance of herbivory, predation, wildfire, and other natural disturbance, as well as practical and implementational questions about how to get from here to there. The thing is, this does not seem to be how the discourse unfolds in reality, at least from what I’ve seen of it (primarily in Denmark). Instead, the naturalistic grazing projects are rolled out… and that’s that. The only question is where to build the next fenced enclosure. The projects remain isolated, with no discussion of how to progress to the conservation of large, connected, and genuinely self-willed landscapes.   

B. An Agrarian Baseline? 

The other salient way in which Rewilding Europe’s commitment to self-willed land is suspect concerns the selection of the baseline for restoration. As noted above (§2.3), the organisation is upfront about its founding mission to prevent the afforestation of abandoned farmland. The implicature is that it would have been unproblematic had the land remained farmed: it is the end of farming that causes the “problem” to begin with. Rewilding Europe claims that it is restoring the natural conditions prior to the megafauna extinction. Yet the organisation is not alone in the worry that the abandonment of agriculture in some areas will be harmful to biodiversity, and more often I have heard this claim made directly – appealing to the (alleged) importance of agricultural landscapes, that is, not all the way back to the Pleistocene.  

If the removal of farming pressure is bad for biodiversity, or bad for certain wild species of conservation concern, then for most conservationists there’d be no real need to appeal to hypothesised prehistoric conditions; the relevant fact is simply that certain species of concern benefit from farming pressure. Appeal to the conditions of the Pleistocene might be an explanation of the curious fact (if it’s a fact) that certain late Holocene species seem to prefer agriculture land grazed extensively by livestock. But it seems tangential to justifying the conservation efforts themselves. For Rewilding Europe too, what appeal to the Pleistocene justifies is not necessarily the practice of replicating agricultural pressure but the “right” to use the word ‘Rewilding’ (instead of the more apt ‘Refarming’). 

My intuition is that Rewilding Europe and its ilk face a double bind here. The first bind is that the deliberate simulation of farm-like impact is bad, for it disrespects the autonomy of self-willed Nature by attempting to perpetuate a state of human-caused degradation. The second bind is that the attempt to simulate distant past conditions is also bad, for it disrespects the authenticity of natural evolutionary processes and Nature’s own capacity to heal and regenerate. So whether they’re seen as choosing a recent but human-created baseline for restoration or a baseline 10,000 or so years ago, they’re not acting with humility and respect for self-willed Nature, but merely persisting in human overreach.    

Strengthening this case will take additional work that I won’t complete here – but, then, that’s not the point of this present post, is it? This post was just meant to reveal the drastic difference between the moral presuppositions of the rewilding movement that I discovered in North America and the like-named movement I would discover in Europe. And the fact that I’m even suggesting that the latter faces such a moral double bind should be telling.  

This idea of farmland-dependent biodiversity is a new latent scientific curiosity and ethical fascination to me. I hope I can write more on this issue sometime in the future, following a great deal more background research into what science tells us, for it is a natural continuation of the moral issue raised in “In Memory of Anholt…” The displacement of natural biotic communities to create farmland is a type of degradation and subjugation of the land, even the consequences are not as extreme as the deforestation of Anholt or copper mining in ​​Bodmin Moor. The domestication of farmed animals was itself a degradation and subjugation of self-willed beasts. The deliberate maintenance of farm-like impact is not the restoration of self-willed Nature, even if native wild herbivores (or non-native domestic herbivores) are introduced to the work of simulating farming pressure. Perhaps the farmers are gone, but it is still forcibly manipulating Nature into replicating the upshot of human activity – not leaving Nature to Nature’s own will and discretion. The structure of the emerging moral dilemma closely resembles that entertained in the Anholt piece, where I came down firmly on the side of respecting the autonomy of self-willed land, even if it meant the loss of rare lichen species. 

If saving Ditrichum cornubicum does not suffice to licence the “remining” of Bodmin Moor (as I believe that it doesn’t), then should agriculture-reliant species suffice to licence the “refarming” of land recently freed from direct human impact? Honestly, I do believe that this is a case where one can’t just construct a thought experiment; more empirical research and case studies are needed to properly hone moral intuitions. What exactly is the scope of the potential losses? What species are we talking about, and are they really dependent on farming pressure to the extend hypothesised? Is the impact to biodiversity, if any, merely local and/or short-term? These are empirical questions, but it is admittedly difficult even to form clear intuitions about moral philosophy in an entire epistemic void.

As a general principle, I believe that respect for self-willed Nature requires releasing land from human imposition – including the deliberate simulation thereof – wherever possible. But I also seem to accept some kinds of minimal imposition for the sake of securing other goods, including the preservation of biodiversity (e.g. developing a small plot of land as a captive breeding centre for, say, the critically endangered White-Bellied Heron). I suppose I might say there’s no blanket licence to “refarm” abandoned farmland, and any exceptions granted would be for the equivalent of “captive breeding centres” – hardly the restoration of wild Nature. 

But, anyhow, Rewilding Europe doesn’t claim merely to be simulating the continuation of farming on abandoned farmland; they claim to be simulating Pleistocene conditions. And I think that’s even more clearly morally bad, as I argue in §3.2.2. 

C. Unsettling and Blurring Binaries? 

Sometimes Rewilding Europe and ilk say they also aspire to restoring, releasing, and protecting self-willed Nature; sometimes I’m not so sure this is even the claim

In Rewilding: The Radical New Science of Ecological Recovery, Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe say some things I find disagreeable, beginning with a gratuitous dig against 1970s prog rock. While Jepson and Blythe make connections between the European and North American “rewilding” movements, their portrayal of the latter is almost entirely represented by Donlan and Pleistocene rewilding. Anyhow, some of their rhetoric seems to give up entirely on respect for self-willed land as even as stated desideratum of “rewilding”. For example, they praise European rewilding for “unsettling and blurring” the boundaries between “wild-domestic” and “natural-cultivated” (p. 7), and they indicated that (unlike restoration ecology) what they call rewilding “aspires to integrate” Nature and people (p. 83). This sounds a lot more like New Conservation than rewilding. Respect for self-willed Nature needs to be an axiom of any conservation movement in the tradition of Foreman, Soulé, Noss, et al. This requires hewing to some of the dichotomies that New Conservationists would have us deny. 

3.2.3 Nature Development and Respect for Evolution

In his response to Fisher in the Rewilding Earth blog, Schwartz suggests that the accuracy of the Vera hypothesis is a moot point, because regardless of its veracity, it is certain that tarpans and aurochs did once roam Europe and impact the landscape: “Even if Vera may overestimate their effects on the landscape, there is no doubt that aurochs and tarpan functioned in the way he claims. If those functions can be re-established using domesticated proxies, then insisting on ‘wild’ animals seems arbitrary and overly idealistic.” 

I disagree with nearly all of that, except that the accuracy of the Vera hypothesis is rendered moot by more fundamental premises. I would say something very different next: regardless of the ecological impact of the Pleistocene’s megaherbivores, those species are extinct, and they’re not coming back (that’s what extinction means). What is thus virtuous is to admit to the irreversible losses and learn to live with them – not to deny them with a human-created simulacrum, a forgery, a fraud. In the post that Schwartz criticises, Fisher specifically calls for on native wild species, by no means “arbitrary” from either an ecological or ethical standpoint.

Critics of Pleistocene or trophic rewilding often focus on the uncertain and potentially ecologically damaging consequences of the introduction of non-native translocated or de-domesticated species (see, for example, Rubenstein et al, 2006, “Pleistocene park: Does re-wilding North America represent sound conservation for the 21st century?” Biological Conservation and the short 2016 follow-up “From Pleistocene to trophic rewilding: A wolf in sheep’s clothing” in PNAS). These are also important worries, yet I believe that the ambitions of Pleistocene rewilding are intrinsically morally wrong. First of all, contra Schwartz, I believe that the (intrinsic) value of authenticity needs to be taken into account, undercutting the accusation of arbitrariness in the insistence on reintroducing only native species, not proxies. In other domains, such as the artworld, authenticity is already accepted as a component of value. Why, then, should this not hold all the more within the domain of ecological ethics, where the objects of our concern are the products of billions of years of natural evolution? 

Suppose that you are an owner of a gallery exhibit of original paintings by Vermeer. One night, while drinking in the curator’s office, you fall asleep, forgetting you’d left candles lit in the gallery. A conflagration ensues, destroying the original art. Clearly, you f–ed up, but now the original Vermeer paintings are lost. There is no way to replace them, no way to reverse the loss. What should you do? Should you recreate the gallery using Vermeer prints? Should you replenish the gallery with original van Meegeren forgeries to serve as “proxy artworks”? Or should you just own up to the loss and the fact that priceless artworks are now gone forever? It would be odd to accuse someone of being “arbitrary and overly idealistic” if they maintained that van Meegeren’s forgeries or prints of Vermeer’s paintings do not suffice as replacements to the Vermeer originals. On the contrary, it is a very common intuition that prints and forgeries lack much of the value of originals. 

Now, I tend to baulk at analogies between the artworld and Nature, simply because the latter is so much more commanding of our respect, reference, deference, and wonder, and even aesthetic appreciation. Ecosystems have been shaped by millions of years of evolution into awe-inspiring displays of harmony, balance, diversity, and other aesthetic properties – if anything passes David Hume’s “test of time” for objective aesthetic value, surely it is the product of four billion years of evolution of life on Earth – and the fact that this beauty was not intentionally crafted, and not meant for us, makes it only more wonderfully mystifying.

Wes Jackson lays out the following thought experiment in a recent interview with Robert Jensen: “Imagine one acre of never-ploughed native prairie, and think about the Mona Lisa. You’re given a choice: you either have to plough that prairie or you have to burn the Mona Lisa. Which do you do? I say you hang on to the one acre and don’t plough. […] People might say the Mona Lisa is irreplaceable, but it’s more replaceable than the ecosystem of that one acre, which you can never recreate once it’s disrupted with a plough. That landscape is somewhere between 1.8 million years and say 400,000 years old, as the ice pushed down a lot of that ground from Canada and parked it here in Kansas. How old is the Mona Lisa? Maybe 500 years. […] That material on that prairie was there before Homo sapiens.”

I share Jackson’s intuition about the case, although I take no delight in the thought of burning the Mona Lisa, which I (like most people) agree also to be irreplaceable. Most people would aver that a copy of the painting is just not the same, no matter how expertly created with replicas of the very types of paints and canvas that Da Vinci would have used. How much more, then, should we be warranted in denying that taxon substitutes or backbred “aurochs” or other products of “de-extinction” experiments are adequate substitutes for native wildlife?  

There is an important disanalogy from the artworld forgeries, but I believe it serves only to highlight a deeper moral problem with the ambitions of trophic/Pleistocene rewilding: evolution is an ongoing process, and I hold that it’s the process more than any particular product that ought to be regarded as sacrosanct. So, described more accurately, what is bad about taxon substitutions and de-extinction is not that the product is a “forgery” of the Pleistocene, but that our creation of unnatural arrangements of “new nature” interferes indelibly with the process. It is something more like, like, smacking a happy face sticker right over the visage of the Mona Lisa before Da Vinci ever has a chance to finish his portrait of Lisa Gherardini in his own style… Hmm, well, maybe I don’t quite have the analogy quite right yet, but what is bad is the severance of natural evolutionary chains, anchored in deep time, with the deliberate insertion of our own grimy fingerprints.

We don’t know what Nature herself will eventually conjure up to fill the niches left unoccupied in the wake of Pleistocene megafauna extinctions, but that is a decision that – in my view – should be entrusted to Nature. Almost certainly, the de-domesticated livestock that trophic rewilders propose as taxon substitutes are not what Nature would eventually produce in the absence of our interference. It is just another type of anthropization of Nature, the imposition of human will onto ecological and evolutionary processes for the sake of short-term human goals, whether the provision of ecosystem services or safari parks or CAP subsidies or assuaging guilt for the sins of our Pleistocene ancestors. It is not so much “playing god” and playing a meta-deity, tinkering with the properties of the Creator herself.

It is, to be sure, a nebulous claim to say that we have a basic moral obligation to respect the natural process of evolution. What does this really mean? As I remarked in my July 2022 post on overpopulation, it could lead to the conclusion that Homo sapiens ought to wantonly and recklessly reproduce until we hit carrying capacity, since that’s what any species would naturally do, and that’s what drives evolution. Since we are creatures capable of conscious and conscientious reflection, however, I think that the appropriate sense of respect does require the engagement of our capacities to regard deep-time evolution with wonder, fascination, awe, reverence, humility, modesty, and deference, and to exercise our capacity to act with self-conscious restraint. This requires that we take care not to intervene in the process of evolution as if we’re just trying out an ad hoc repair of a broken appliance.

“Biodiversity-first” conservationists might lack my qualms concerning the integrity of evolutionary chains. Biodiversity is biodiversity, one might say, whether it’s created by self-willed evolutionary processes, human-led selective breeding, or the mixing of DNA in a sterile, climate-controlled laboratory. But one man’s modus ponens is another man’s modus tollens, as they say, and I believe that these cases do differ morally, and that insofar as the biodiversity-first position cannot accommodate this intuition, that is evidence of its falsity. Natural processes will increase biodiversity in the long term if left alone, and given our inability to genuinely reverse extinction, the virtues of humility, deference, and respect are better manifest in trusting Nature to find her own novel path forward from the end-Pleistocene extinctions, not by the impatient desire to see Pleistocene levels of biodiversity restored in our own lifetimes. 

Some hold a very different virtue-based ecological ethic, one which postulates that humanity has a duty to make amends for extinctions that our species has caused. This desire to make amends for the misdeeds of our Pleistocene ancestors strikes me as childish and naïve in its denial of the finality of extinction. It is like thinking that one can make amends for manslaughter by mail-ordering a genetic copy of the victim as a gift to the bereaved. It attempts to soothe one’s own guilt by failing fully to confront the enormity and irreversibility of what one has done.

It is not within our power to make amends for extinction, and the most noble action may be to do nothing – as painful as that may be to us guilt-ridden creatures – but to admit our own inadequacies and step back to allow the Earth to move forward according to her own terms and creative powers. We mustn’t repeat the mistakes of our forebears, but it doesn’t follow that we ought to intervene in natural processes again in paltry attempts to make amends for the megafauna extinctions. Indeed, the attempt seems paternalistically meddlesome, effectively signalling that we don’t trust Nature’s own ability to recover from the extinction event – despite a proven track record of recovery from previous extinctions – and that Nature still needs us to step back in to set things right, despite thousands of years of self-directed recovery from the extinctions already underway.

We should, in general, act to prevent extinctions that are within our capacity to prevent. All the more, we must curtail the ill tendencies at the heart of the extinction crises: overpopulation, habitat destruction and fragmentation, direct overexploitation of organisms, and all the wanton destruction in the name of cultural preferences. Mass extinction is a symptom. The root evil is the lack of wonder, reverence, and respect for Nature and her creative powers.

Foreman wrote that the preservation of wilderness and wildlife is “fundamentally about human humility and restraint.” Jepson and Blythe now boast of “‘upgrad[ing]’ ecosystems […] in ways that will help steer societies towards more sustainable and liveable future” and “ecological engineering” (p. 70), “producing natures that are novel from both an ecological and cultural perspective” (p. 7), and having a relaxed attitude toward the creation of “novel ecosystems” (various places), even though the novelty is the result of human tampering rather than Nature’s creativity. Jepson and Blythe even inform me that the “rewilding ethos is redefining the boundaries of extinction from a living animal to living DNA” and excitedly praise the application of synthetic biology to resurrect the auroch (p. 120ff). Okay! If this is the “rewilding ethos” nowadays, it is decidedly a crass perversion of the idea of “human humility and restraint” of which Foreman wrote, nor is it what I signed up for when I belatedly discovered the North American rewilding movement. But I do also have a fondness for 70s prog rock, so probably I am just “out of touch with trends in science and wider society.” Ah, well. As Greg Lake sang, c’est la vie.  

This has been a very long post. Yet there is much more work to do. But I guess at least I’ve that established that, just as I ultimately did in the basic income movement, I take an anti-conciliatory, anti-convergence stance with respect to the “rewilding” movement. Different strands, flavours, and styles of “rewilding” diverge not merely in implementational details, nor in minor disputes to be resolved by scientific enquiry; they are prone to diverge all the way down to their fundamental normative assumptions about morally correct attitudes and actions toward wild Nature, and it is inappropriate to ignore or elide these differences.