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Deep Rewilding

Man with short hair and glasses smiles next to a huge, white wolf on a rooftop against backdrop of a large, elegant brick building.
Bill Lynn visits University of Vermont with his friend, Atka—a (now retired) ambassador wolf from the Wolf Conservation Center in New York. Photo: J. Henry Fair

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.

A bear-like animal with light brown and dark brown fur climbs a tree toward a bait bone, with snow on ground.
A wolverine visits a camera-trap station in the North Cascades of Washington. Photo: Robert Long, Woodland Park Zoo

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.

Man in shorts and hiking clothes sits on a red rocky cliff, pointing his camera at something in the distance.
Bill Lynn, Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico. Photo: Camilla Fox

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.

A lynx looks back from atop a snowy hill
Canada lynx. Photo: Larry Masters

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.

A large cougar sits in front of a rocky opening, sunlight casting an orange hue over her and the rocks
An adult female cougar sits outside her den on the National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Photo: Thomas D. Mangelsen

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.

Deep Rewilding

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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8 thoughts on “Deep Rewilding

  1. Thank you, Bill. You are right. There is no imperative to rewild nature, or even to conserve it, unless it is a moral imperative. And this means, following Kant, that it must be a categorical imperative, not a hypothetical one that depends on human preferences. “If you want to see wolves, then you must preserve them” is true, but it makes the imperative to preserve them dependent upon our wanting to see them. And likewise for reintroducing them. Instead, we should embrace the categorical imperative “We must preserve wolves.” It is our moral duty. And so why not be right up front about it – not by way of being dogmatic or condemnatory, but by way of appealing to the “better angels of our human nature.” This is something that we all need to work at – not just doing it, but always trying to become better at it. And it is a never-ending challenge.

    1. Hello westernwildlife,

      Thanks for writing.

      It is a pleasure reading a comment that intelligently cites Kant and a version of his categorical imperative! His distinctions between intrinsic and extrinsic (instrumental) values, and direct and indirect duties to animals are indispensable in ethical reasoning.

      You are right too that it is a long-term project in educating citizens, scientists, and policy makers about the ethical dimensions of managing the human relationship with animals and nature.

      Cheers

  2. The last part of what I wrote could use some explaining. For us compassionate conservationists, acknowledging that we have a moral duty to conserve species and habitats is one thing – we do it through our actions, including what we say and write. How to encourage and persuade others to do the same is something else. How can we make them care enough?

    I don’t think there is one best way of doing this, one message that is the right one. I think sincerity is of paramount importance. And I think it is helpful to be sensitive to the context and the audience.
    I also think there are some messages that, even if true, are in general not very helpful, possibly even counterproductive. For example: “Thou Shalt Not Kill!” seems too dogmatic. And: “Fish feel pain, accept it!” to me smacks of not only dogmatism, but condemnation and condescension.

    But what about a real example from a recent Utah Wildlife Board meeting, where the wildlife managers proposed raising the number of black bear permits substantially, predicted to result in about 50 additional bear deaths in 2018. During the public comment part of the meeting, a woman told the Wildlife Board members that it was immoral to kill black bears, and that they knew it, but manage to ease themselves into self-deception by using terms such as “harvest” and “take” rather than the more accurate term “kill”. In short: “You are killing bears and it is morally wrong!” This moved the state representative of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to get up and loudly proclaimed that he is a proud hunter and has no problem using the word ‘kill’: “I kill elk and I’m proud of it!” was what I heard. The woman didn’t persuade anyone who wasn’t already persuaded, but her sincerity and bluntness struck a sensitive spot. Maybe if enough people voice this opinion it will have a positive effect. I don’t know, but I admire the woman for what she did.

    But there are still other ways of trying to convey the message that we ought to be compassionate toward animals. They serve the moral imperatives of compassionate conservation too. Two books that I recently read do this in different ways. One of the books is American Wolf, by Nate Blakeslee. It is in large part a biography of the legendary matriarch and alpha of the Lamar Canyon wolf family in Yellowstone National Park, O-Six, which ends with her being shot by a wolf hunter east of the Park. The author never says that it is wrong to kill wolves, but he so skillfully describes O-Six and her deeds that one can’t help but realize how awesome she was – an intelligent, sensitive and brave being who evokes one’s admiration and respect. The story doesn’t contain an ethical pronouncement, but the message is deeply moral.

    The other book is Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, by philosopher Peter-Godfrey Smith. Godfrey-Smith so skillfully tells the story of the evolution of mind, that one can only marvel at it all. He even did his own research off the coast of his homeland, Australia, scuba diving and observing octopuses and cuttlefish – creatures that don’t have a nerve cord and a central brain, but which nevertheless have quite elaborate dispersed nervous systems and display a fascinating array of behaviors. An octopus is about as alien as any earthly being can be to humans, but with camera eyes – lens, retina, and all – that are very much like human eyes. Godfrey-Smith’s descriptions of octopuses and their behavior, and his scientifically informed explanations of what it is like to be an octopus, allow one to peek inside the mind of an octopus, to experience its world from its point of view, so to speak. One can’t help but have empathy for them as a result.

    1. Good clarification, and an important story from Utah.

      I recall the 1999 American Museum of Natural History conference on wolves. The guest speaker was Mary Midgley, mother of what we today call human-animals studies or animal studies. She spoke eloquently about wolves and wildness, presupposing their individual and species values, noted our failure with what we now term coexistence, and called for embracing wolves, wildlife, and nature, both as individuals and as collectives, e.g., wolf packs, regional populations, species. It electrified the audience, and emboldened moral claims about how we ought to manage our relationship with them.

      It was accompanied, however, by prominent ethicists, scientists, and environmental non-profits asserting that wolves and other wildlife were nothing but biological machines, their commitment to lethal management, and the primacy of science in public policy decision-making.

      We hear that even today from many leaders in conservation writ large. And yet I know for a fact that many of their staff roll their eyes and are waiting for the day when the ethics takes its co-equal place alongside the science.

  3. The question of rewilding Wild Horses that have been rounded up and penned for one to 9 years has come up many times during this last year. We have had most of the horse territories allowed numbers be reduced to nonviable populations or to even zero. Now, there are horses in holding, some lucky enough to get large long term pastures but most not, and those are all sex separated. We are working to reestablish their territories as mandated by the 1971 law to protect them as wild in balance with their habitat and ugg other interests. Once this is done than rewilding will take place. Being an indigenous mammal to the Americas and have already shown they will revert back to their sophisticated herd structure the question now is how to convince those in charge of policy of how it can be done.
    One ecologist is proposing a reserve design with areas that can be attached with corridors. We already have two herds near Yellowstone or Cody and Lowell that could be connected if we can get the horses back into the Custer Nat’l Forest. Or the Forest as a corridor. This would also be a great place for the wolves to be allowed.
    It may sound like a losing battle with all administrations since 2000 trying to give our lands away to the highest bidder and of course those who love to see more preservation are not the highest bidders.
    Good article, you have given me lots to think about.
    Marylaine Oakland Young

    1. Hello Mary Oakland Young (Mary if I may),

      Mary, thanks for commenting.

      I don’t know much about the wild horse situation in North America, even if my first article as a graduate student was about brumbies down under!

      Am I correct in assuming that there is a debate about whether wild horses are considered a native species or not? And whether wild horses thus contribute to or damage native landscapes? What is your take on this?

      How we answer this does not dismiss or resolve your query, but it would give me a better understanding of how it is seen to relate to rewilding.

      Cheers

  4. Bill

    This is really good stuff. There is a critique of Naess, Rolston, Leopold, and Roosevelt by the late Marti Kheel that sounds similar tones. She laments the loss of the individual as a result of too much emphasis on the science. I think you have hit the nail on the head and something that can be missing too often in the rewilding discussion. Thanks for your work articulating this.

    best, Christopher

    1. Christopher,

      Great to hear from you on this topic.

      Thank you for reminding me of Marti Kheel’s work. I’m curious what you might think in response to what I say below.

      There is rising tension between rewilding and compassionate conservation rooted in competing emphases on biodiversity versus animal rights, as much as those terms oversimplify matters.

      Both of these alternative paradigms of conservation have strong ethical commitments to the non-human world. But vocal advocates are pre-committed to ecocentric (wholistic) verses biocentric (individualistic) interpretations that a priori subordinate one to the other.

      Kheel’s distinction between human and nature ethics is helpful in this respect. It embraces our moral relationship to both animals and nature, wild and domestic, without reducing it to a false choice between biodiversity or individuals.

      Anna Peterson makes good use of this in her book, Being Animal: Beasts and boundaries in Nature Ethics (2013). My review of it is here (http://www.williamlynn.net/pdf/lynn-2015-being-animal.pdf).

      I hope you and yours are well too!

      Bill

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