ECOS 38 (1)
Teasing out the definitions and meanings of rewilding may reveal the variety of ways the word is currently used, and the motivations behind these uses.
Rewilding – grappling with its scope
The idea of rewilding, Geoffrey Wain claimed in his introduction to ECOS 37(2), is “transforming the fabric” of nature management in Europe and the UK by posing difficult questions about how it should shape conservation practices. Responses to such questions have varied. Steve Carver suggests a continuum, along which a wide array of meanings of rewilding can fall, in keeping with the wilderness continuum he and others have mapped in the UK. In Carver’s terms, rewilding would range from “rewilding-max”, where, as he writes: “we are not in charge and where nature rules the roost”, to “rewilding-lite”, which would include projects less ambitious in scope or design, for instance, European style rewilding, where grazers rather than carnivores dominate, or projects that attempt to integrate rewilding into the existing cultural landscape. Carver summarizes his approach as broadly inclusive: “Whatever flavour rewilding you choose, it can sit somewhere on the human-landscape-ecological modification spectrum as a ‘process’ that moves us towards a wilder and more natural ecosystem”. Voicing a contrary view, Mike Townsend argued in the 37(2) issue for the preservation of rewilding’s so-called “brand integrity”: that rather than embracing an encompassing definition of the term, rewilding ought to be taken to reflect a stricter and more achievable vision and avoid being distracted by the “more eye-catching aspects,” which draw considerable interest as well as controversy.
Even more recently, Mark Fisher and Alison Parfitt have written in ECOS about steering away from the term “rewilding” altogether, wary of its confusing array of meanings, especially those that imply a backwards looking orientation and a fixation on historical ecosystems. They point to several instances that combine rewilding efforts with existing bio-cultural landscapes, which, they suggest, risk “colluding with the decline in nature”. Instead of trying to salvage the term, they propose a new one: “wilding”, which suggests to them “true nature conservation - it is wild nature conserving itself”.
Similarly, outside of ECOS, Dolly Jørgensen has argued that the word rewilding is already too broadly applied: she worries that the term is becoming overused to the point of meaninglessness. Fisher and Parfitt cite Jørgensen’s point and indeed make the same criticism of the term in support of their own coining of wilding. Confusion around rewilding’s various and conflicting uses is obvious in the ECOS discussion and the in broader cultural conversations. My views, coming from environmental philosophy, differ from most contributors to ECOS. While I agree that the lack of definitional clarity around rewilding certainly will require resolution, I suggest that the confusion itself merits some attention before we clarify it with stricter definitional boundaries or new terms.
Konik ponies provide wild grazing at Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire. Photo: National Trust
Rewilding’s popular appeal
Why has rewilding captured the public imagination and become such a popularly discussed topic, when a main predecessor of the concept, ecological restoration, remains the province of a comparably much smaller group of dedicated conservation practitioners? Circumstantial reasons aside, Mike Townsend thinks about this by giving considerable attention to rewilding’s significance beyond what its policies might propose. Rewilding’s essence, Townsend writes, is not necessarily the introduction of carnivores but the challenging of our current relationship with nature. Steve Carver, too, detects an underlying change that movements for rewilding signify, noting that rewilding implies a renegotiation of some of our human boundaries with nature. He points out how rewilding upsets the conservation status quo, which keeps nature always in its place and never allows it to inconvenience humans. Both authors seem aware that what is at stake in defining what rewilding includes and excludes is a bigger question than only deciding good practices in ecology and conservation.
While conservation practitioners may primarily be interested in rewilding in the specific sense of restoring natural processes and the self-willed quality of the landscape, or in increasing ecological resilience in the face of future change, other meanings of rewilding have attracted broader public interest. The journalist George Monbiot’s enthusiasm for rewilding is intertwined with exploration of the world around him. The opportunity to rediscover wildness in the extremely domesticated and restrained landscape of the UK has appealed to many with whom his complaints of ecological boredom resonate. This broader interest in rewilding has been personal—that is, as much about rewilding one’s own life as it has been about how to make nature wilder through revised policies.
Rewilding as a cultural critique
Concern about the unsustainability of our Western lifestyles and economies and the unsound exploitation of resources that sustain them has been the foundation of environmental movements for decades, but rewilding seems to tap into deeper critiques of society and economy. For instance, in an Op Ed in the New York Times, George Monbiot introduces the idea of rewilding to a predominantly American readership in the framing of the freedoms we have and cherish as well as to those that we take for granted. He writes:
“We entertain the illusion that we have chosen our lives. Why, if this is the case, do our apparent choices differ so little from those of other people? Why do we live and work and travel and eat and dress and entertain ourselves in almost identical fashion? It’s no wonder, when we possess and use it so little, that we make a fetish out of freedom”.
He contrasts this with rewilding, which challenges the conformity of our daily lives and our fetishism of freedom because, as he explains, a rewilding of our own lives would “allow us to step into a world that is not controlled and regulated, to imagine ourselves back into the rawer life from which we came”. Monbiot suggests that our ecological boredom relates not only to the absence of wilder creatures but also the monotony of landscapes and environments maintained for our convenience and ease. Such sentiments resonate with a phrase coined by Wouter Helmer, the co-founder of Rewilding Europe, in describing the character of rewilded, or new, natures in the Netherlands and continental Europe. Helmer called such places “insane oases”, by which he meant “places where we can escape from the overabundance of societal orders and regulations”. Considering rewilding not only in terms of policy directives and the return of carnivores, but as a response to larger, disruptive questions of how wildness can persist in a human managed world seems central to its aspirations.
The river Liza in Ennerdale with its unconstrained course through the wild Cumbrian valley. A prime example of 'nature in charge'. Photo: Peter Taylor
Rewilding and the end of nature
The rewilding movement reacts to even larger trends and problems in environmental awareness. Mike Townsend makes the important recognition in his ECOS article that even the most remote regions of the earth bear the imprint of human influence through the elevated levels of carbon dioxide, microplastics in the waters, and pollutants in the air and soil that pervade the planet. “It is impossible to escape the influence of human activity,” he writes. Such occurrences have become commonly recognized as the grounding for the idea that we are now living in a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, where human impact on the plant is so widespread and profound that it amounts to a geologic force. The idea of the Anthropocene has inspired much debate, especially around how we should respond to the mounting evidence of our collective impact on the world around us, and perhaps understandably the concept has inspired greater concern for preserving and amplifying what wildness does still exist. In this way, rewilding can be seen as a response to the omnipresence of humans on earth. The fascination with the return of wildness to our human landscapes, even if this cannot undo a past of human influence, seems to be a crucial element of the interest in rewilding. Rewilding promises space for the return of wilder aspects (of ecosystems, of ourselves, of our cultures) to the environments that surround us, which is perhaps a reassuring promise in a world that often seems all too human.
The practice or the idea of rewilding?
Most writers examining rewilding consider its role in re-examining and re-negotiating our relationship with nonhuman nature in the present and future. Steve Carver brings up James Mackinnon’s book, The Once and Future World to pose the question of “what’s the wildest world we can live in?” This question indeed is at rewilding’s core, but to try to answer it by referring only to facts of ecology or biology is to miss the point, and I think Carver and Mackinnon would agree. Rewilding, if we look carefully, is frequently about a change in ideas about nature and conservation and about the role of humans in these processes. Of course, the practical difficulties from definitional confusion will have to be worked out: Fisher and Parfitt report that the lack of clarity over the meaning of rewilding has already muddled an Environmental Audit Committee inquiry into biodiversity and conservation in the UK. But the question of why no single meaning of rewilding has emerged is also worth considering. I have discussed three aspects that fall outside of a strictly ecological interpretation of rewilding but that I nevertheless suggest comprise important elements of the ideas behind it: the elements of rewilding oneself, of rewilding as a cultural critique, and of rewilding as a response to the Anthropocene. I do not believe that rewilding as a phenomenon can be understood in isolation from the reasons that it has attracted such interest.
How these varied meanings should be reflected in rewilding initiatives is the work of conservation practitioners in the UK and in Europe. This is not to say that they need to take these broader themes as seriously as the more straightforwardly ecological meanings of rewilding they already think about and try to enact. But, rather than dismissing them outright as misunderstandings or misappropriations of the term, my suggestion is that conservation practitioners should at least consider what might motivate these diverse uses of rewilding. Ignoring this diversity and even confusion will not help us understand why the idea of rewilding has gained such attention and fascination and may ultimately hamper efforts at successful and acceptable conservation practices and policy decisions.
 Wain, G. (2016). Editorial, Losing Control. ECOS 37(2): 1.
 Carver, S. (2014). Making real space for nature: a continuum approach to UK conservation ECOS 35(3/4): 12.
 Carver, S. (2016). Rewilding…conservation and conflict. ECOS 37(2): 3.
 Townsend, M. (2016). Rewilding - Keeping the brand integrity. ECOS 37(2): 30.
 Fisher, M. & Parfitt, A. (2016). The challenge of wild nature conserving itself. ECOS 37(3/4): 33.
 Fisher, M. & Parfitt, A. (2016). The challenge of wild nature conserving itself. ECOS 37(3/4): 28.
 Jørgensen, D. (2015). Rethinking Rewilding”. Geoforum 65: 482-488.
 Carver, S. (2016). Rewilding…conservation and conflict. ECOS 37(2): 3.
 Monbiot, G. (2013). Feral. Allen Lane.
 Monbiot, G. (18 January 2015). Our Ecological Boredom. The New York Times. online: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/19/opinion/our-ecological-boredom.html
 In Dutch, ‘Waazinnige osases.’ Quoted in Drenthen, M. (2009). Ecological Restoration and Place Attachment: Emplacing non-places?’. Environmental Values 18(3): 303.
 Townsend, M. (2016). Rewilding - Keeping the brand integrity. ECOS 37(2):31.
 Lewis, S. & Maslin, M. (2015). Defining the Anthropocene. Nature 519: 171-180.
 Carver, S. (2016). Rewilding…conservation and conflict. ECOS 37(2): 5.
 Fisher, M. & Parfitt, A. (2016). The challenge of wild nature conserving itself. ECOS 37(3/4): 30.
PhD researcher in environmental philosophy at Radboud University in the Netherlands.