Within a few days of my posting my long-form essay “On Rewilding (Whatever That Is): Thoughts of a Faux Expat,” a recent chapter on so-called “agricultural rewilding” was brought to my attention [*]: “Domesticating rewilding: combining rewilding and agriculture offers environmental and human benefits” by Virginia Thomas et al in Transforming food systems: ethics, innovation and responsibility. In essence, the authors relabel regenerative agriculture as ‘rewilding’ and argue that it can subserve (what they perceive to be) the goals of actual rewilding, but do so without offending social norms and while providing additional benefits to humanity (both of which are presumed to be good things).
As it turns out, this is only one of several chapters in the conference proceedings on the topic of so-called “agricultural rewilding” or “rewilding with domestic animals”. I have chosen it specifically to criticise merely because it’s the one I first heard about. I strongly considered posting nothing about it, for after all there is nothing new here; it is just the old familiar anthropocentric stranglehold on conservation in conjunction with a now common perversion of the meaning of ‘rewilding’. The fact that anyone can unironically adopt the oxymoronic expression “agricultural rewilding” – that is, the alleged synthesis of farming and rewilding – is testament to the damaging upshot of the redefinition of ‘rewilding’ such that naturalistic grazing with fenced (semi-)domesticated livestock is its prototype (discussed at length in §2 of my last essay). Despite this, I believe it would be mistaken to focus my critique on the authors’ extreme form of abuse of an item of the English lexicon, for there are more basic disagreements that underlie this co-option of the term ‘rewilding’ – and which fly in the face of the spirit of the original rewilding movement.
First, and most fundamentally, the chapter’s ethical presuppositions appear anthropocentric through and through (§1). Although some cursory comments are made about the autonomy of non-human animals, they are quite strange to say the least, and no attention whatsoever is given to the idea that there is a basic moral mandate to protect the autonomy of Nature itself. Presumably as a consequence of this narrow and unimaginative view of ecological ethics, the authors misrepresent the goals of rewilding (§2). Secondly, and derivatively, the proposal for “agricultural rewilding” betrays a pronounced lack of ambition and overarching concession to the societal status quo (§3), once again dramatically out of keeping with the ethos of the rewilding movement as it originally developed in North America.
1. Fundamental Moral Rifts
As I described in §1 of “Thoughts of the Faux-Expat,” I was initially attracted to the (American) rewilding movement due to the ecocentric worldview adopted and advocated by its chief proponents. I was especially allured by Dave Foreman’s frequent reminders that wilderness is self-willed land, as it speaks to what intuitively seems among the most important and basic reasons for wilderness conservation: respecting the autonomy of naturally unfolding processes. Okay, perhaps it is too much to ask that all authors engage with my specific elucidation of ecocentrism and the moral foundations for rewilding. Nonetheless, any writer who aspires to engage with the rewilding movement must entertain the general notion of ecocentrism, i.e., a moral stance that considers wild Nature to have intrinsic worth that is not reducible to the intrinsic worth of individual humans or any other individual animals or organisms. The American rewilding movement was steeped in ecocentrism throughout its Wild Earth years, and remains so today, as evidenced by the vision statement of The Rewilding Institute (“The Rewilding Institute begins with the assumptions that most of the world ought to be wild, that extinction is the overarching crisis of our time, and that we modern humans have an ethical obligation to protect and restore wild Nature”).
Thomas et al completely fail here. They don’t so much as mention ecocentrism for the purpose of dismissing it. The authors make a couple of passing references to Ian Convery and Steve Carver’s article “Time to put the wild back into rewilding” (ECOS, 2021) as advancing a position antagonistic to their own, yet they evince no real attempt to analyse what Convery and Carver argue or why. Apropos of the present point, they would have done well to remark on the ninth of the IUCN Guiding Principles for Rewilding (“Rewilding recognises the intrinsic value of all species and ecosystems”), which declares that “wild nature has its own intrinsic value that humanity has an ethical responsibility to both respect and protect” and that rewilding “should primarily be an ecocentric, rather than an anthropocentric, activity.”
Instead, Thomas et al frame conservation mainly in anthropocentric terms (§1.1), remain neutral on the reasons to protect biodiversity (§1.2), and … well … seem not to understand autonomy (§1.3). It is this overwhelmingly anthropocentric outlook, combined with an complete absence of engagement with ecocentric ethics, that allows them blithely to propose regenerative agriculture as a replacement for genuine rewilding. It is effectively New Conservation.
1.1. Thomas et al repeatedly presuppose that benefiting humans (always) adds value to conservation activities; meanwhile, they do not consider the possibility that the use of land to satisfy human needs and desires can inherently subtract value, as it would if the anthropization of landscapes is an inherent ill to be avoided where possible (as I and many other ecocentrists and rewilding advocates believe). The following are examples:
- “Agricultural rewilding offers the potential for win-win scenarios in which biodiversity is increased and ecosystems are restored along with active human intervention in landscapes and the provision of livelihoods which are financially and environmentally sustainable” (p. 167).
- “[I]n addition to their role as ecosystem engineers, the domestic species involved in agricultural rewilding have the added benefit of fulfilling a role in productive agriculture which the wild species in rewilding max do not” (p. 168).
- “Agricultural rewilding, which permits continued human intervention in the landscape, offers a win-win scenario. Domestic livestock can be present in the landscape, restoring biodiversity and regenerating ecosystem function, active human intervention in the landscape can continue in the management of these species […]” (p. 168).
The purported “win-win scenarios” are such only within an anthropocentric worldview in which Nature is conceived as a resource to be exploited to meet human needs, and not something to be regarded as sacrosanct, with portions protected from our use.
1.2. While Thomas et al also presuppose that biodiversity conservation is important (as seen in the above quotes), they leave it indeterminate whether biodiversity is intrinsically valuable, or whether it is valuable only insofar as it contributes to “ecosystem services” for humans. Thus, the authors’ references to biodiversity should not be taken as evidence that they adopt, or have even entertained, ecocentrism. It follows that their (mis)identification of biodiversity conservation as the purpose of rewilding (see §2 below) should not be taken as evidence that they understand that rewilding, in its original incarnation, was thoroughly ecocentric.
Furthermore, my own position is this: while biodiversity is indeed intrinsically good, a mandate to preserve or enhance biodiversity does not represent moral bedrock, and indeed this prima facie conservation mandate can be overridden by the more fundamental moral obligation to respect the autonomy of natural processes (chiefly self-directed evolution; this view is advanced in pieces throughout “Thoughts of a Faux Expat” and the antecedent “In Memory of Anholt as I Never Knew Her”). To be fair, even most rewilding folks don’t seem to go here. But they should.
1.3. Although Thomas et al made some feeble remarks about the obligation to respect the autonomy of non-human animals, what they say is really weird and betrays an evident lack of critical thought about non-anthropocentric ethics. Here is what they say (emphases added):
- “This management and slaughter of species impinges on their autonomy and killing of animals in either conservation or farming contexts is not without controversy” (p. 168).
- “[W]hile the autonomy of other-than-human species is somewhat curtailed by their management and ultimate slaughter, their lives, as part of an extensive farming system, will have been lived to high welfare and environmental standards […]” (p. 168).
I can’t help but to feel wry amusement at the gross understatement in saying that a creature’s autonomy is “somewhat curtailed” by “management and ultimate slaughter.” Nothing is more antithetical to respect for the autonomy of “self-willed beasts” (as Dave Foreman would say) than to domesticate and enslave them for any type of human use. A slave is still a slave no matter how lavish his quarters. Perhaps typifying humans who somehow tolerate life in modern society, Thomas et al seem to confuse material standard of living with autonomy when speaking of “welfare conditions”; the former in no way guarantees the latter.
The authors’ remarks on the autonomy of more-than-human Nature are limited to the above. In particular, it bears emphasis (again) that they never consider the position that wild Nature itself (e.g. entire landscapes or ecosystems) should be respected as autonomous.
2. Understating the Goals of Rewilding
In keeping with the previous omissions, the authors define the benefits of rewilding extrinsically. That is, they neglect to consider the viewpoint that rewilding – restoring and protecting self-willed Nature as such – is an intrinsically desirable goal. Instead, Thomas et al frame rewilding as a conservation strategy touted for its instrumental benefits, as when they state, in the opening paragraph, that rewilding “advocates sparing large cores of wild land for species whose conservation requires significant amounts of space to insulate them from the risk of extinction” (p. 165). It is true that rewilding has been advocated for this reason, but it is merely one facet of a broader mandate to protect wild Nature.
In reducing the moral mandate of rewilding to its instrumental aims (i.e. biodiversity conservation and ecosystem services), Thomas et al sidestep the fundamental moral disagreement concerning humanity’s obligations to autonomous Nature. This sidestepping is essential to their arguments that regenerative agriculture (“agricultural rewilding”) can effectively subserve the aims of rewilding (max) and thus function as an substitute in contexts in which the latter is impractical, as illustrated by the following passages (emphases added):
- “Agricultural rewilding can enhance biodiversity within these areas to a greater extent than would be possible in conventional agriculture. Nonetheless, in negotiating its position within farming landscapes, agricultural rewilding compromises on some of the key tenets of rewilding. This compromise should not be interpreted as a weakness but rather as a strength in that rewilding can exhibit flexibility, expanding its applicability while still achieving its central purpose” (p. 167).
- “In such cases [where “rewilding max” is perceived as “threatening”] agricultural rewilding can proceed and provide ecological benefits in human-dominated landscapes whereas, by rigidly adhering to its key tenets, rewilding max may not be able to proceed at all and would therefore produce no environmental benefits” (p. 167).
- “Where this [large landscape conservation] is unfeasible due to human and/or physical landscapes, rather than abandoning aspirations of rewilding, agricultural rewilding can exist at more human-compatible scales, aligned to farms or other areas of landownership […] In this way, relatively large-scale rewilding can still occur and provide ecological benefits while remaining compatible with existing landownership models” (p. 167).
Clearly, if rewilding’s “central purpose” is to safeguard the autonomy of wild landscapes, then so-called “agricultural rewilding” does not achieve this – much the contrary!
The authors’ arguments can gain purchase only if rewilding is perceived as valuable only instrumentally. In that case, there would remain (a) an empirical/scientific dispute as to whether farming can genuinely achieve the desired outcomes in terms of biodiversity conservation, ecosystem services, etc., and (b) a semantic dispute as to whether farming should in any circumstances be called ‘rewilding’. But I contend that the authors’ arguments can’t gain purchase at all because there is an absolute and irreducible moral imperative to protect the autonomy of self-willed Nature – that is, to rewild for rewilding’s sake.
3. Pusillanimous Concessions and Compromises
There is no other way to state it: as things are, wild Nature is pretty fucked. Thus, if one accepts a basic moral duty to protect wild Nature, one must of necessity commit to being pretty damn ambitious and radical. In contrast, if one doesn’t accept this moral obligation, adhering instead to anthropocentrism, one has much more latitude to compromise to (perceived) human interest and resign to the status quo. Thomas et al, for example, are willing to accept the immutability of norms of social acceptability (§3.1) and demographic projections (§3.2). No ecocentrist – and no true rewilding advocate – could afford to do such things.
3.1 Thomas et al are willing to allow the European conservation agenda to (continue to) be held hostage by socio-cultural mores, making no gestures whatsoever toward the possibility of changing these norms.
The authors note that proposals for rewilding in Europe have “experienced considerable controversy due to concerns over human exclusion from landscapes […] and lack of human intervention, which publics have sometimes interpreted as an abnegation of responsibility” (p. 166). The rewilding proponent might interpret this fact as a clarion call to challenge societal attitudes – to do whatever we can to instil the publics (not just one public, mind you, but every last one of them!) with a respect and reverence for the beauty and creative potential of unmanaged landscapes. In contrast, the response of Thomas et al is to praise what they oxymoronically call the “taming” or “domestication” of rewilding in Europe: “The forms of rewilding [sic] which are emerging are more compatible with other types of land use and therefore more socially acceptable, leading to co-existence and tolerance rather than generating controversy” (ibid).
Later, the authors aver that “if agricultural rewilding is perceived as less threatening than rewilding max it has the potential to succeed within productive agricultural landscapes where forms of rewilding further along the spectrum may fail” (p. 167). Again, this is to sacrifice self-willed Nature to the mere socio-cultural contingency of what is perceived as threatening (!!). It should be anathema to any ecocentrist even to imagine giving up on rewilding on the basis that one is too spineless to stand up to outmoded, unscientific, and unethical cultural perceptions of self-willed Nature as threatening.
3.2 Although it is not a focal point of the paper, the authors also appear to concede defeat with respect to the possibility of reducing human population, accepting current trajectories that the Earth will “need to feed nine billion people by 2050” (p. 169).
Human overpopulation has been and continues to be the most severe threat facing wild Nature, as it multiplies all the myriad harmful types of human activity – habitat destruction and fragmentation, overharvesting, pollution, and so on – and consigns uncultivated, undeveloped areas of Earth’s surface ever more to the margins. But it is also the easiest problem to solve, because literally all people need to do is to stop having kids. There is absolutely nothing inevitable about human reproduction; it is readily within our power as a species to end and reverse human population growth – and any rewilding proponent must advocate for precisely this. Without human depopulation, possibilities for rewilding are already severely constrained (see, e.g., the grim statistics cited in “The One in Which I Broach the Topic of Overpopulation”). This is not a reason to abandon the aspirations of rewilding; it is a reason to advocate for human depopulation in tandem.
It is a common objection to rewilding that the need to feed a growing human population doesn’t allow for it, and Thomas et al appear to recapitulate this mindset, even though they opt to redefine ‘rewilding’ instead of asserting that rewilding isn’t possible. Regardless of the words (mis)used, the upshot is the same; the authors seemingly give up on the prospects for limiting human population and, with it, give up on the preservation of wild Nature. When one instead adopts the starting point that the preservation of wild Nature is a fundamental moral mandate, then one has no choice but to do what one can to act on overpopulation.
4. Concluding Remarks: What is the Real Problem Here?
It is easy to understand why proponents of rewilding – in its original sense – would be appalled by the degree to which the term is stretched in this chapter. This, however, is nothing new. The term ‘rewilding’ has already been appropriated to refer to farms such as Knepp Estate or, in Denmark, Klintholm Gods. And this itself is an unsurprising application of the term in light of its now-prevalent use in Europe to refer, stereotypically, to a type of naturalistic grazing in which the grazing animals are (a) selected due to resemblance to their wild ancestors and (b) kept in their enclosures year-round without supplemental feeding. Thus, this new publication by Thomas et al should not be seen as uniquely shocking or reprehensible.
To be sure, Thomas et al are poor semanticists. They make no attempt to critically investigate the proliferation of uses of ‘rewilding’ – uncritically accepting all as valid and synonymous. The semantic analysis aspires to descriptiveness and inclusiveness to a fault (the famous line of Whitman comes to mind: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I contain multitudes”). The reference to Wittengenstein’s idea of family resemblance is superficial and naïve; Thomas et al believe that they can invoke family resemblance to ground the alleged univocality of all uses of ‘rewilding’ without recognising that this stretches the notion of family resemblance itself too liberally to be of use (a bit like appropriating the concept to allege that ‘football’ is univocal term because all games called ‘football’ share a certain family resemblance, being played on a field, with a ball, two teams, goals, etc.).
Despite these flaws, the danger runs deeper than mere misuse of a word. The newspeak-like redefinition of ‘rewilding’ as something simultaneously compatible with agriculture may be seen as a gambit to shut out any movement to protect self-willed Nature. Yet we mustn’t let the issue of labelling obscure what is even more deplorable here: the absence of a strong, unified, morally grounded movement – by any name – to protect self-willed Nature.
I once wrote a doctoral dissertation in philosophy of language just for fun. I like arguing semantics! At the end of the day, however, the true enemy is anthropocentrism, human chauvinism. The problem is that I am a philosopher, and no amount of philosophising can defeat anthropocentrism; no logic and reason can adjudicate this fundamental moral rift. What is needed is a transformation of non-cognitive attitudes – to learn to regard wild Nature with wonder, awe, humility, and respect. And I, as a mere philosopher, don’t know what to say or do at this point. Get outside and attune yourself to whatever wildness you can find in your surroundings, or something.
[*] See this and this Twitter thread with Ian Convery, Steve Carver, and Mark Fisher, which contain my original articulation of most of the ideas in this post, in their < 280 character form. Thanks to Ian, Steve, and Mark for enlivening my experience at a 10-hour layover at Boston Logan with under three hours sleep.