When I was a graduate student, the idea of rewilding was inspirational. I avidly read the writings of those advocating a wilder world—Arne Naess, Mary Midgley, David Foreman, Michael Soulé, and others—as well as the much loved and sorely missed journal, Wild Earth. Now, as an academic who specializes in ethics and wildlife, I am delighted to witness the success of organizations like Wildlands Network and The Rewilding Institute in propagating rewilding across North America and beyond.
And yet, I have become increasingly concerned for rewilding over the last decade. The moral vision that animated its early years has receded, while its scientific dimensions have pushed their way to the fore. I have no argument with the science, per se. Indeed, I greatly honour conservation biology and the practical, on-the-ground advances it has helped to establish.
Rewilding cannot succeed as only a network of core areas protected for biodiversity.
But as Aristotle noted millennia ago, politics and public policy are “ethics writ large.” Ethics (for good or ill) drives how we make and revise public policy. Rewilding cannot succeed as only a network of core areas protected for biodiversity.
Such landscape designations, like species protections, are subject to the political winds of change. Wolves in the United States are a case in point, with their status in steady decline during recent administrations—both Democratic and Republican.
To become a reality, rewilding must take deep root in our culture. And those of us advocating rewilding must help define a vision and inculcate an ethic that truly values and seeks to promote coexistence between people and wild nature.
The Science of Rewilding
Myriad definitions of rewilding can be found online and in print. To make things easy, let us turn to Wikipedia and expand out from there. This is, after all, the likely first stop for students and citizens interested in rewilding.
Rewilding is large-scale conservation aimed at restoring and protecting natural processes and core wilderness areas, providing connectivity between such areas, and protecting or reintroducing apex predators and keystone species.
This definition shares its main elements with others put forth over time—from Dave Foreman’s coining of the term in the early 1990s, to the rewilding and biodiversity thesis nailed to the door of traditional conservation by Michael Soulé and Reed Noss in 1998, to those definitions held by a variety of non-profits promoting the rewilding of North America, Europe, Australia, and elsewhere today.
The scientific underpinnings of rewilding—theoretically straightforward if a bit complicated to enact on the ground—are centred on the restoration and preservation of native biodiversity in perpetuity. The science of rewilding primarily focuses on the three Cs: cores, connectivity, and carnivores. In order to protect biodiversity, core areas of protected habitat (free from human depredations and development) necessarily provide space for flora and fauna to thrive.
Since in a (mal)developed world like ours, few if any cores can be large enough to encompass intact ecosystems much less migratory or dispersing wildlife, natural corridors must be establish to facilitate connectivity between these cores. And given that top-level carnivores both promote and maintain biodiversity, creatures like wolves, grizzly bears, mountain lions, wolverines, and other predators should be strictly protected from human killing. Large-scale rewilding initiatives like the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative and E.O. Wilson’s Half-Earth proposal are grounded in this scientific approach to preserving biodiversity.
Taking a Step Back
Now take a step back, and think a bit more about what the above definition of rewilding implies. The first implication is that rewilding is primarily a scientific practice; the definition is inattentive to the moral norms that inspire and justify rewilding. The second presupposition is that species and ecosystems are the focus of concern—“units of analysis,” in science talk. This wholistic focus on the ecological community is absolutely necessary to be sure, but I would argue that our working definition is too silent on the direct moral concern for individual creatures that animated early calls to rewilding.
Take the case of wolves again. Since the early 2000s, I have been teaching about the ethics of wolf recovery to wildlife professionals, conservation non-profits, natural and social scientists, citizen activists, and students. In my experience, most care about wolves as more than a scientific abstraction called a “species.” To one degree or another, the majority of these people see in wolves something akin to what they see in their dogs: creatures who think, feel, play, and love. Individuals about whom we can and ought to care deeply. Other beings whose well-being we can choose to harm or defend.
These are moral insights drawn from experience, and they have been strongly documented in studies of cognitive ecology (animal behaviour and culture) and animal ethics (ethics applied to animals, wild or domestic). More generally, the “aha!” moment for my audiences comes when they realize rewilding is not simply about restoring ecological functions and services, but entails fulfilling our ethical obligations to respecting the space and habitats wild beings need to survive and thrive.
When I make this point in conferences, I often encounter two entirely legitimate objections from people I will call rewilders—those who advocate rewilding. I should emphasize that I count myself among this group, and take their objections to heart.
One objection is that, at this stage in the history of the planet, rewilding on the ground is paramount, and so of course we are going to focus on the science of its implementation. This is especially important in light of the Sixth Great Extinction being driven by human population growth, urban sprawl, industrial landscape development, climate change, and the like.
I do not disagree with this objection. I do, however, think that rewilding can address both ecological and ethical concerns at the same time. Actually, it must do so to ensure the cultural, moral, and political changes needed to secure its current and future accomplishments. If we do not secure the moral foundations for a rewilded world in politics and society, our work will be overturned and for naught. Consider what the Trump Administration is attempting to do in carving up public lands for the benefit of extractive industries and local elites.
The other objection is that rewilders really do care about the well-being of individual animals, their families, and their social groups: families of wolves, tribes of mountain lions, herds of elk, and the like.
I agree! But to my mind, the trouble is that we have stopped talking about these concerns up front. Our ethics of care has become latent, not manifest. Pushing our moral sensibilities to the side denies us the power of moral argument in the public sphere. All movements for social change—right or left, social justice, animal protection, or conservation—are sustained in large part by the moral arguments that explain and justify them. Without these arguments, there is little reason to prefer one policy over another beyond what is best according to the self-interest of vested elites. Ethics is key to winning such debates, and rewilding needs these moral resources.
The Ethics of Rewilding
With the above comments in mind, think with me like an ethicist for a moment—that is, as someone using ethics to figure out how we do right by people, animal, and nature. Ethics is not a rigid code of conduct or a timeless set of moral truths. Following the lead of the ancient scholar Socrates, ethics is better understood as an open-ended conversation about how we ought to live with the other. Put another way, ethics asks how we do right by those who are not ourselves. This other might be human or non-human, an individual or a community, a society or an ecosystem.
Animals and nature are not merely of instrumental value.
Long before there was a science of rewilding, there was a latent moral longing that brought it into being. Early rewilders were not content with preserving biodiversity as a stock of pharmaceutical resources, exemplars of biomimicry in design, or providers of ecosystem services for humans—important as these benefits may be. They understood that animals and nature are not merely of instrumental value, nor resources created for the use and abuse of people and our societies.
Early rewilders recognized that other beings and ecological communities have intrinsic value irreducible to human needs or wants. Some focused on ecosystems as the result of nature’s ecological and evolutionary wisdom, others, on individual wild animals who make their homes, families, and cultural traditions in the wild places of the Earth. Still others saw reconfigurations of these intrinsically valuable creatures and ecological communities in the novel ecosystems of developed human landscapes. These are the root moral sensibilities that gave birth to rewilding.
So it is a bit odd that, today, ethics play so small a role in the practice and dialogue of rewilding. Indeed, as rewilders, we are neglecting an indispensable element of why we care about rewilding: our ethical commitment to the non-human world. In so doing, we deny ourselves the opportunity to impassion others who resonate with our moral commitments.
We also deny ourselves the ability to argue, on moral grounds, that treating nature as nothing more than “inorganic body of man” (Karl Marx) is a wrong-headed point of view. Without that ethical critique front and centre, we are stuck defending rewilding in terms of human interests, which, on their own, will always override the interests of animals and nature.
In short, we must reconnect with the ethics of rewilding while holding fast to its science. This is what I call deep rewilding.
We must reconnect with the ethics of rewilding while holding fast to its science.
The term is a clear nod to one of rewilding’s ethical founders, the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess (1912-2009), and his seminal 1973 article “The shallow and the deep, long-range ecology movements.” Naess inspired the deep ecology movement in North America and elsewhere, out of which sprang the concept and practice of rewilding.
Naess sought to break trail on how to think about people, animals, and nature in ways that honoured their intrinsic moral value. He was also interested in the relationship between ethics and science. For him, shallow ecology focused narrowly on technical solutions for environmental problems faced by humans, restricting intrinsic value to human beings alone. Nature and wild creatures were resources for human ends, not morally valuable ends in and of themselves. Deep ecology rejected this anthropocentrism, recognized the intrinsic value of both individual animals and ecological communities, and sought to integrate science and ethics into a deeper understanding of humanity’s place in the world.
Although I am not suggesting equivalence between shallow ecology and contemporary rewilding, there are lessons we can learn by comparing them. We should not define rewilding as solely a science-based conservation strategy, but should pair the science of rewilding with the ethics that justify it.
We should not leave the ethics of rewilding to languish in obscure academic journals, but should emphasize it in our educational and outreach initiatives.
And we must not rely on facts and science alone to sell rewilding to policy decision-makers or the public—a straight-out prescription for ultimate failure when the political landscape shifts under our feet.
I hope deep rewilding will inspire us to marry science and ethics, facts and values, public philosophy and public policy. And ultimately, that it will contribute to our healing a broken world by embracing our membership in the community of life.
Bill Lynn is a research scientist in the George Perkins Marsh Institute at Clark University, a research fellow at New Knowledge Organization, and former Director of the Masters in Animals and Public Policy (MAPP) program at Tufts University. Visit http://www.williamlynn.net/.
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