Rewilding

Irrelevant Picture of Author in Dolmen (selfie)

Since November 2022 I have been a member of the Board of The Rewilding Institute (TRI). Meanwhile, I am pursuing independent research, thinking, and writing on the moral foundations of ecological ethics, and the implications for wilderness protection and restoration. I have also written much recently on the divergent uses of the term ‘rewilding’ in the US versus Europe, my view that ‘rewilding’ should be considered semantically ambiguous, and why it matters. As I become more involved with TRI, I am likely to use its blog Rewilding Earth as the main outlet for my writing about rewilding, with this website still functioning as a blank space to experiment with new ideas and tangential topics when I have the occasion.

Most of my work presupposes the intrinsic value of nature. Some defends a specific conception thereof, on which the natural process of evolution is among the most important bearers of intrinsic value. My most recent self-published piece addresses the question of why conservationists who believe that nature is intrinsically valuable should speak in these terms: “Why Intrinsic Value? A Defence of Being Honest” (29 January 2023).

I’m presently working with the editors of Rewilding Earth to serialise some of my writings on the ambiguity of ‘rewilding’ and its ecological and ethical correlates (with some new additions as well). They are gradually leaking out under the heading Take Back Rewilding, the title suggested by our executive director John Davis as an allusion to founder Dave Foreman’s excellent book Take Back Conservation. After a drawn-out, slow-burn, multifaceted critique of (so-called) rewilding in Europe, the series will ultimately return to a positive vision of rewilding grounded first and foremost in the moral obligation to respect and protect autonomous “self-willed” ecological and evolutionary processes. By refocusing on rewilding’s original moral aims, we can reaffirm our aims in face of a proliferation of ambiguous, transposed, watered-down, and confused uses of the word ‘rewilding’.

I’m also already thinking about several future pieces for Rewilding Earth outside of this series, but we’ll see what happens.

“Take Back Rewilding” Series

Prologue (10 January 2023): how I came to rewilding via Dave Foreman’s work and my own dabbling in ecological ethics; presaging the critique of the common Danish/European use of ‘rewilding’ to refer to naturalistic grazing.

• ‘Rewilding’ Ambiguity (17 January 2023): recapitulating well-worn observations about “rewilding” in Europe vs US but adding the heretical claim that the difference should be considered semantic; revisiting/defending Mark Fisher’s account of drift in the meaning of ‘rewilding’ in Europe; conceptual prototypes.

Impressions of an American in Denmark (1 February 2023): personal account of my observations in the Danish context that originally led me to the “ambiguity thesis” presented previously; more examples to bolster said ambiguity thesis.

• Up Next: Rewilding/Refarming Europe and the conclusion of the semantic argument (which, of course, is only the beginning…).

…with many more to come, including: how the problem with European rewilding isn’t only a matter of size and scale; why logical consistency ought to compel North American rewilders to critically evaluate certain European projects; the additional importance of size and scale; the fact that morality doesn’t change depending on hemisphere; moral double-bind for Refarming; returning to & developing the ethical foundation sketched in the Prologue. 

See also my Rewilding Earth Podcast episode 101 for background.

Other Critiques of European “Rewilding” & Conservation

In Memory of Anholt as I Never Knew Her (31 July 2022): not a critique of European rewilding per se, but a critique of a case study in the European speciality of conserving degraded landscapes; develops my first pass at an ecological ethic based on respect for landscape autonomy.

On Rewilding (Whatever That Is): Thoughts of a Faux-Expat (5 October 2022): a long piece containing the argument for transatlantic semantic ambiguity, plus background on my interest in the North American rewilding movement, and initial reflections on ethical and ecological concerns with “rewilding” (naturalistic grazing) in Europe.

A Follow-Up Regarding So-Called “Agricultural Rewilding” (20 October 2022): a detailed critique of one particular book chapter (Thomas et al, “Domesticating rewilding…”) but also contains some generalisable points about (e.g.) the need to consider the restoration of self-willed land as an intrinsically desired goal.

American Rewilders Should Worry about Europe (Take Two) (16 November 2022): written after being added to the Board of TRI, a more direct and fine-tuned call on North American rewilders to acknowledge the situation in Europe, plus a deeper dive into an apparent moral dilemma for European rewilding and its equivocation between agrarian and Pleistocene baselines.

Moral Foundations of Rewilding

In my positive account (i.e. that sketched in the Prologue to Take Back Rewilding), I begin with the axiom (a la Michael Soulé) that “evolution is good” and ask how we are really to understand and implement this in practice. I will argue, of course, that it requires the liberation and protection of wilderness, wildways, and wildeors, but as a philosopher I realise that the conclusion doesn’t follow as quickly as one might think.

A cornerstone of my account is that respecting evolution’s “goodness” must be understood not merely in cognitive terms, but as also involving the cultivation of certain non-cognitive attitudes, such as wonder, awe, reverence, and humility. These action-influencing attitudes are ones that naturally tend to motivate us to respect these evolutionary processes by granting them space to carry on autonomously (sometimes after removing human-imposed constraints), deferring to their own creative powers rather than attempting to shape them according to own ideas of what is best.

The human capacities for choice and restraint are also central to my account. I maintain that thinking in terms of a deliberate commitment to respect the autonomy of natural processes provides a means to understand the coherence of wilderness preservation while also acknowledging the fact that humans are part of nature and no part of Earth is completely free from the impact of humanity. Analogously, the fact that “no man is an island” does not provide licence to enslave, exploit, or needlessly impose coercion on other people; acknowledging some degree of interdependence is compatible with accepting mandate to respect others’ autonomy in many, many other instances. Moreover, while it is inevitable that humans will impact the rest of nature in some ways, there are many, many instances of deliberate imposition that are voluntary, and that we can choose to avoid (and, in some cases, to reverse).

For further development of this position, see (with more to come at a later date):

Ecocentrism is Underspecified: Toward a Sentimentalist Ethic of Respect for Evolution as a Moral Basis for Rewilding (9 January 2023): motivation and initial development of the above moral position, in the context of needing a firmer moral basis for rewilding than ecocentrism per se, given that ecocentrism can be co-opted by much more interventionist approaches if they deny a separation between humans and the rest of the biosphere.

In future work, I intent to explore the practical implications of this position for the moral limits of human intervention in nature conservation. In general, I promote the stance that intervention is not ipso facto morally wrong (contra an odd view, which I’ve been encountering from several angles lately, which has it that all restoration is anthropocentric); however, restoration can and always should be pursued as empathetically assisting nature in achieving what nature wants (e.g. continuing the natural course of evolutionary development in a given region prior to its interruption by human exploitation or development). I am presently working on fleshing out this interpretation to counter not only anthropocentrism but also the potential concern about paternalism when intervening on nature’s behalf, as introduced in “A Role for Paternalism in Ecological Ethics?” (16 January 2023).

Other Relevant Posts

Collected Thoughts on Satellite Mega-Constellations and My Loathing Thereof (3 September 2022): about the degradation of the night skies by the launch of low-orbit satellites by Starlink and other private companies, but also contains general philosophical excursions on topics such as ecocentric versus anthropocentric justifications of the importance of wilderness.

The One in Which I Broach the Topic of Overpopulation (19 July 2022): not much directly said about rewilding, but on a topic of concern for rewilders; my “inaugural” post on ecological ethics.

In the latter post, I additionally broach another perennial background interest: how should we conceive of the long-term goals of rewilding given that, realistically, we’re f**ked and wild nature’s only likely hope is that our bloated cancer-like civilisation will collapse of its own sheer weight? Intuitively (as Dave Foreman has also suggested), we could think of rewilding as a way to preserve elements of evolutionary processes to give wild nature its best starting point going forward — but does this position really hold water? If so, how are we to conceive of it and employ it in guiding our practices? I’m not exactly sure when and how I’ll take up these enormous topics, but I really hope to…