“Over-civilised people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that [nature] parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life… None of nature’s landscapes are ugly, as long as they are wild” - John Muir, Scottish Naturalist (1898)
Climate change and the Anthropogenic mass extinction event are upon us. As our planet cooks and our lifeblood drains, we pray at the altar of science to give us the cure. We believe that science has always provided and will always do so. After all, science has given us pesticides to grow food, aeroplanes to see the world and nuclear power plants to fuel our progress. We are told that any challenge can be overcome by the application of scientific knowledge, technology is the key. This belief and its encompassing movement is known as Scientism, and is arguably the World’s most popular religion. Its prophets offer us grandiose solutions to our looming environmental doom, atmospheric geoengineering and space colonisation amongst the most ambitious. In culture, future projections of human civilisation are technological expanses, often on other planets, where all our needs are met through the implementation of Scientism’s core tenants. But where is Earth’s place in this vision? Has nature overstayed its welcome in our lives and our identities?
Scientism has relatively recent roots. Historian Lynn White Jr. points to the fusion of the Judeo-Christian notion of nature’s subservience to man found in Genesis with the enhanced sense of mastery that modern science endowed us with as its source, which was then exported throughout the world via European imperialism. White identifies this ideological division as the driver of our relentless discounting and degradation of our planet. Nevertheless, must technological advancement always widen the gap between us and nature, or can it sometimes create the space we desperately need to rekindle the oldest of our relationships?
In Britain, like much of Europe, modern afforestation has drastically increased forest cover back to a 900-year high as industrial forestry expands and migration into space-efficient urban centres advances. However, agricultural land still dominates, occupying 71% of the UK’s land surface. While this is still the case, pesticide usage will continue to decimate insect populations, antibiotics given to livestock will endanger public health, and soils will be ravaged into infertility. Regarding soil, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation and Environment Secretary Michael Gove are in agreement (perhaps for the first time): we have tens of harvests left before nothing will grow. The practice of working the land for sustenance has conclusively passed its zenith, and the next agricultural revolution has arrived.
Advances in indoor farming have made possible the release of vast swathes of land from the grip of agriculture. Hydroponic farming -indoor cultivation on a soil-free, pesticide-free medium- can now be used to grow most crops, including staples such as wheat, rice, potatoes, salad and fruits. Yields are magnitudes higher due to stackable growing surfaces, water requirements are drastically lower, and in situ renewable energy generation can compensate for higher energy demands.
It is not just crop production that could shift away from its origins, the rearing of livestock could too. Animals are inherently dependent on plants for the ingredients they require to grow, wasting upwards of 90% of the energy they consume as heat, excreta, and during movement. Synthetic meat production cuts out these inefficiencies by directly growing muscle tissue from cell cultures at a fraction of the resource intensity. Researchers have found that in comparison to conventionally produced European meat, synthetic meat requires 99% less land, with similar savings in energy, water and emissions. Synthetic meat is organic, involves no animal cruelty and is even passing taste tests.
If applying these new techniques released even 75% of land previously devoted to agriculture, 13 million hectares, or over half of the UK’s landmass, would become idle. This shift would set the scene for a radical reconnection with nature, through rewilding of the land that was once lost to farming. Rewilding encapsulates wide-scale ecosystem restoration through three processes: creating protected areas, reintroducing species to them, and forming natural corridors to connect them.
Rewilding is already underway in the UK. In January 2018, the government announced plans to create the Northern Forest, comprising of 50 million trees and stretching coast-to-coast, from Liverpool to Hull. As well as creating new landscapes, the Woodland Trust hopes that the Northern Forest will absorb 8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide through its growth, shaving 1.6% off the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions (2015 baseline). In Scotland, the charity Trees for Life has planted over 1.2million native trees in efforts to regenerate the Caledonian Forest, and is expanding the Dundreggan Conservation Estate near Loch Ness (home to eight new animal species since 2012), into which they hope to reintroduce the declining red squirrel.
Furthermore, researchers at the University of Swansea have developed biodegradable plastic matrices to which sensitive seagrasses can attach, providing important habitats for fish and sinking carbon from the atmosphere. They hope to use them to rewild Swansea Tidal Lagoon and the wider Atlantic. In Gibraltar, the charity Helping Hand has sunk old boats, tyres and concrete blocks to the sea floor to create an artificial reef. Since the 1970s, the reef has attracted over 100 species including bottlenose dolphins and green sea turtles.
Getting Along Like Old Friends
Keystone species (species that disproportionately characterise their local environment) are not just returning of their own volition to newly restored habitats, but ecologists are actively reintroducing them. Beavers, last thought to roam Britain in the 16th century, hunted to extinction for their fur, have made a comeback in Scotland and Devon, with miraculous effects. As natural water engineers, their dams create wetlands by slowing the flow of freshwater courses, in turn creating habitats for insects, wading birds and shellfish. They also provide defences against flooding, which is of increasing concern in the UK as climate change worsens downpours.
Wolves, extinct in the UK since 1769, have been selected for a return to Scotland in the hope that they will bring down red deer numbers, which conservationists hope in turn will ease pressure on tree saplings the deer graze. Reintroducing apex predators such as wolves has dramatic cascade effects on the rest of the food web, counteracting the often-damaging effects of herbivores. In Yellowstone National Park, USA, the reintroduction of the grey wolf in 1995 brought elk numbers under control, in turn facilitating the replenishment of willow, the proliferation of beaver colonies that build with willow, and thus the regeneration of the park’s lost wetlands. Unforeseen benefits also arose. As the wolves succeeded in killing more elk, scavengers, such as grizzly bears and ravens, also reaped the rewards.
The NGO Rewilding Britain does not want us to stop at just beavers and wolves. They are pushing for a bold and eclectic mix of reintroductions, including, but certainly not limited to, the pelican, lynx, bison and bluefin tuna. These undeniably majestic creatures would be joining the likes of the already successful wild boar, moose and white-tailed eagle. If these species returned to newly created habitats, the countryside again would become enchanted by the sights and sounds of our long-lost fauna, and the pesticide-ridden nightmare behind Rachel Carson’s seminal work Silent Spring, which kickstarted the modern environmentalist movement, would be banished to the annals of history.
Disconnected Cities Create Disconnected People
There is no reason we should stop at rewilding our countryside; our urban spaces should reflect our visions of tranquillity too. The greening of cities is vital for their sustainability, but letting nature take its course and augment these spaces is likely to amplify any benefits. Roofs packed with wildflowers would see a return of pollinators such as bees and butterflies that are in desperate trouble in UK cities. France is leading the way in legislating for this kind of transformation- since 2015, all new municipal buildings must be covered in gardens or solar panels. The Wild West End community project in London seeks to create a corridor of roof gardens and existing green spaces in the hopes of attracting rare species. Their dream goal is to make London the home of the critically threatened Black Redstart once again.
But what’s in it for us? As physical and mental health epidemics are sweeping the nation and those in desperation are increasingly forgotten, there appear to be more pressing concerns. However, rewilding offers some hope. Parks provide spaces for exercise, community gatherings and reflection. They are spaces for children to play, zones where everyone is welcome. The Faculty of Public health points to research finding accessing green spaces can reduce symptoms of conditions such as ADHD, anxiety and depression. According to one study, expanding urban green spaces in England will reduce the health disparities between rich and poor. Moss walls could absorb air pollution on our streets at efficiencies magnitudes greater than trees, and rooftop gardens combat solastalgia, stress induced by environmental destruction, through reconnecting us with the gentle cycling of the seasons.
The Roadmap to Natural Redemption
If the above is beginning to resemble a list, it is because the myriad solutions mentioned reflect not only the potential of rewilding, but also the distance we have yet to travel to achieve it. It is hard to envisage the finished product in Britain, birthplace of William Blake’s ‘dark Satanic mills’. However, the folklore of this country is steeped in the mystery of the forests, the mountains, and the wild. As children, we are raised with depictions of nature, only to be overcome with the monotony of modernisation in adulthood.
However, things can change. Qian’an province (China), thought to be the source of Beijing’s smog, is the pinnacle of industrial woe. Qian’an City, dubbed “Steel City” after its major industry, is China’s exhaust pipe, or at least it used to be. To look at the city centre before and after the establishment of the Sanlihe Ecological Corridor is to behold the true power of rewilding. Where post-apocalyptic wastelands and desiccated river channels once fermented in the toxic fog now lie the green, gold and fuchsia banks of a clean river. The 13km stretch meanders below the sleepy Yan Mountains, its peaceful waters peppered with reeds teeming with soft-shelled turtles and birds. Residents fish and play in its waters, they are at one with nature again.
There is a reason Scotland is voted the most beautiful place in the world and rural tourism contributes more to the economy than agriculture. We seek the wild. All humans experience innate biophilia: we look for experiences in natural places, pay to protect wildlife we will never see and love our pets on a profound level. Technology should not attempt to perpetuate man’s mastery over nature but reflect nature’s mastery over man. The benefits of rewilding are no hidden secret, and we have, for the first time, the technology to free up the space to reap them.