Does rewilding need a social vision to achieve its ecological goals?

By Tom Dando

I didn’t want to write another piece on nature’s decline, or another grand piece on rewilding, instead and in my opinion just as importantly, I thought I would discuss the need to explore our relationship with nature and the inclusion of a social vision for our landscape.

While undeniably rewilding is at its core an ecological aspiration, the mechanisms needed to fully implement the vision of cores, corridors and carnivores (keystones) or whatever vision of ‘wilding’ you may have, are undoubtedly social. Indeed, it is social factors that will ultimately decide the fate of rewilding, as with all of conservation. The fundamental issue at the heart of the delivery of rewilding, is not simply disagreement and definitions, it is that people are disconnected and disincentivised from nature in a way that makes engaging and enthusing them to support a substantial change in our relationship with the landscape challenging.

There is undeniable momentum behind the basic idea of rewilding and it certainly has the power to capture attention, but my experience has been that the new people who back this shift, are largely those who already cared about or were involved with environmental issues anyway. Get outside the bubble and quickly it unravels, at best it is misunderstood but often it is simply unheard of.

Outside of those who care for the land and the environment, people live in an increasingly urbanised world. It’s a world that is busy, full of competing distractions that take up what attention we can spare. Our priorities are often decided for us, and for most in cities, the daily routines have an absence of nature and green space. Nature is under threat everywhere but nowhere more so than within ourselves. Of course, there is far more to unpack here, accessibility to quality green space being a big one, the relationship between environmental poverty and those already likely to be struggling in society as well as the economic aspects of land use. I’m getting away from rewilding here, but through it, I see an opportunity to address some of these issues. As well as the three C’s of cores corridors and carnivores (keystones), rewilding needs to set out a bold positive social vision for what a rewilded country looks like.

What future is the next generation running into?

To start with it needs to look at who it is engaging. I am hesitant to criticise conservation groups too strongly, many have large memberships and plenty of support which suggest they’re doing a decent job at engaging people. However, one of the problems we have in reaching outside the bubble is that for too long engagement has meant engaging with the low hanging fruit, those likely to already be inclined to support. This creates all kinds of issues, from communicating in echo chambers, to an absence of diversity in people and ideas. It fosters a vision that nature is not for everyone and means changing the course of conservation groups is often like trying to do a 360-degree turn in an oil tanker. If rewilding is to be successful it will need to happen in a diverse set of locations and varying scales, this calls for a diverse set of voices to spearhead that challenge.

A social vision should make a clear commitment that rewilding is not just the mass restoration of ecosystems, but also about creating a better social landscape with it. A landscape that is accessible to everyone, where society and ecology are not seen as distant but as one. It should not only be to make our cities and countryside greener for biodiversity’s sake, but also to reconnect people with the world around them. Rewilding often gets canned as being about removing people, heritage and tradition. Instead of defensively convincing people that it isn’t, why not set out a bold vision to show what the positive social impacts will be and how the old and the new might complement one another.

This leads on to another issue that a social vision for rewilding can address, who is it for? If it is only for landowners, the wealthy, or those in rural areas then we have a big problem over how sustainable that model is. For our landscapes to be revitalised and a sense of wildness put back into them, we first need to understand that nature is not owned, and it is not for anyone in particular. The agenda cannot be driven by an exclusive club of wealthy landowner interests, access to sites a luxury only afforded to the middle-class glampers. A rewilding where the only social and economic carrot is ecotourism is destined to exclude and fail. We need to think outside the box to define new economic incentives as well as restorative ones.

Who is rewilding for? How many different versions do we need to capture the diversity of people and nature?

I think this is where smaller-scale activities and urban rewilding, such as the ‘Blue campaign’ can play a big role. Often derided by purists, these represent a crucial stepping stone if we are to get anywhere near landscape-scale change. By opening up nature to everyone we can bridge the gap between the environmental bubble and the general population, between wealthy estates and peoples back gardens. The quality of green space is as much an urban problem as a rural one, and while a greater degree of wilderness might be the end goal, giving a foothold for wildlife in urban areas is also going to be crucial. Rewilding exists on a spectrum, and for the most part, change is going to start from the bottom-up.

A social vision for rewilding should mean engagement, it should mean social cohesion and health, well-being, diversity and the inclusion of heritage and culture. The language surrounding wild nature remains very powerful. In spite of an increasingly anthropocentric discourse that many have suggested means the end of naturalness, terms like nature and wild continue to be linguistically powerful ways of stirring emotion and evoking something inside us, a connection and a curiosity, rewilding needs to utilise this.

Finally, any rewilding project on whatever scale needs to be agreed, and here a forward-looking, optimistic and dynamic social vision can be really helpful. Obviously, the scale will influence the number of stakeholders likely to be involved and therefore the diversity of opinions that need to be discussed, but ultimately there needs to be dialogue and understanding. From the point of view of a purist this will inevitably dilute the wilderness they may desire, but looking at examples from around the world, an imposed project never ends well. While there is clearly some disparity between landowners, land managers, agricultural interests, country sports, political interests and that of residents, by in large people accept that biodiversity is at a cliff edge moment and some compromise from all parties is likely to be needed to create a landscape that better supports wildlife as well as being sustainable and acceptable to all. This means creating a forum where any sanctimonious views are left at the door (something academics and environmentalists often struggle with, in my experience). A social vision can remove doubt that rewilding is about removing people and erasing culture, quite the opposite, it needs both.

Rewilding proposes a fundamental change in our relationship with nature, it suggests bringing nature into our lives and allowing it to determine its own direction and outcomes. That fundamental change requires a change in ourselves and a change in society, but like our landscapes, that change only occurs if we provide opportunities for it to do so. That won’t happen by accident but by making it a core part of what rewilding seeks to achieve. A positive, optimistic vision of the future that promotes the mass restoration of ecosystems, reawakens the biophilia within us and brings people and nature onto the same page.

Our relationship with nature has evolved over 1000s of years. What is the story of the next chapter?

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