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Wild ponies feeding at Oostvaardersplassen, Netherlands, where a huge floodplain nature reserve has been turned over to wilderness. Photo: KONIKpaarden via Flickr (CC BY).
Wild ponies feeding at Oostvaardersplassen, Netherlands, where a huge floodplain nature reserve has been turned over to wilderness. Photo: KONIKpaarden via Flickr (CC BY).
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Rewilding is not just for nature - it's essential for our own survival

Jessica Rothwell

16th October 2015

Rewilding landscapes impoverished by human exploitation enriches nature and brings back life to an increasingly ravaged world, writes Jessica Rothwell. But more than that, it's a vital step in making human existence sustainable in the long term, depending as we do on our planet's functional ecosystems for our health and survival. It's time for people to pull back - and make space for the wild.

Replacing diverse, complex, evolved biomass with a simplified, monocultural, production-oriented biomass results in a loss of indirect benefits that ultimately undermines the sustainability of the entire system. And this is where we are now.

There is ample evidence of how uncomfortable the earth becomes when Man interferes with its natural operating system. The Press picks up on some of these stories:

"Tuna and mackerel populations suffer catastrophic 74% decline, research shows" (the Guardian, 2015). Or "Cameron pledges £6bn to fight global climate change" (The Telegraph, 2015).

But other discomforts, no less critical to the planet's wellbeing, make only the headlines of minor publications: "Shark loss hits global ecosystems" (Scuba News, 2015). And "Loss of biodiversity impacts human health, says CBD and WHO" (UN Convention of Biological Diversity, 2015).

These issues may be equally important for their ecosystem impact - but inconsistent press reportage makes redressing their effects more difficult.

Native ecosystems dismantled

Consider the America's Great Plains before their 19th Century European colonisation. Here a natural, balanced ecosystem prevailed, where the principal players were the Native Americans and free roaming bison. And the result was a high level of biodiversity that was self-sustaining.

The land reassignment by the settlers that followed, a 'managed ecosystem' for the production of grain and cattle, was in fact skewed in favour of biomass production, resulting in an ecological imbalance.

By the 1930s, the settlers' farm management methods, assisted by periods of drought, had loosened the virgin topsoil and created a dustbowl of nearly half a million square kilometres of the Great Plains: for optimal results, biodiversity and biomass production need to be in equilibrium.

It appears that such an agricultural imbalance overlooked the importance of symbiotic connections that ultimately resulted in landscape scale demise of productive systems. Studies now show that the more plant species per acre, the higher the soil fertility and the higher the overall biomass actually becomes. Thus, the value of biodiversity over higher human yield per acre is reinforced.

Video: the Rewilding Event in Frome, Somerset of 22nd October 2015.

The American Great Plains exemplar applied to a relatively minor area of the Earth's surface, for vegetative change imposed by Man occurs across the globe. And the rate of such human intervention in land usage is driven by several factors, not least increasing efficiency of technology, or by the rapid expansion of the human population.

Replacing diverse, complex, evolved biomass with a simplified, monocultural, production-oriented biomass results in a loss of indirect benefits that ultimately undermines the sustainability of the entire system. And this is where we are now.

As populations grow so do the demands for food

Human population growth has forced biomass to replace biodiversity, by doubling its size in a little over 40 years (3.7 billion to 7.1 billion 1970-2015, WHO). Half of the world's land has been modified by humans in the same period (Hooke & Martin-Duque 2012).

And not coincidently, 50% of vertebrate species have also disappeared (WWF Living Planet Index 2015). Loss and degradation of habitat is the key driver threatening 85% of IUCN Red Listed Species with extinction (2015). Marine populations show a 49% reduction in populations over the same period (ZSL Living Blue Planet Report 2015) implying a link to human endeavours.

Messages relating to loss of symbiotic connections exist too. Take the diagram below depicting global temperature increases. The extreme heat changes occur mainly north towards the Arctic. This is an indication that the 'Ocean Conveyor' belt, whereby warmer equatorial waters driven northwards cool before they reach the polar ice, is slowing down.

Temperature changes are further exacerbated by human intervention, including land modification through deforestation, wetland shrinkage and fossil fuel extraction. Greater frequency of extreme flooding is another associated impact.

So, given that human land modification causes significant change to the systems supporting life, should man continue to be considered as the most intelligent species? His indiscriminate and increasing rate of land modification, given the global consequences described - might suggest not.

Thus - and this may sound quaint - could it be that human wisdoms accumulated over centuries are now giving way to short term impulse without factoring in consequences? Reuters reported in September that "Colombia's last nomadic tribe in despair at loss of culture." Remnants of indigenous peoples in tune with a wilder life are lost as 'civilisation' takes over.

So what does it all mean to be wild?

If being wild for animals means 'living in a state of nature', for plants 'not cultivated' and for land 'without constraints or regulation', then functioning in a self-sustaining, self-regulating state will naturally support basic life-sustaining systems such as air, water, mineral and nutrient flow and soil creation.

Wild-ness will continue to provide for life and for real growth. Humans incidentally, would naturally come under the classification of 'animal', a factor we tend to overlook.

Domesticated land implies that it is civilised, possessing 'politeness and good manners'. A noble endeavour, to be sure, but it has less utility value for survival in the global and longer term sense.

And if civilisation implies the 'stage of human social development and organization which is considered most advanced', that advance may be defined as 'reaching the final stage of a life cycle, or reaching its twilight years.'

More positively, with such signals from the natural world come interpretation and alternative approaches that, if acted upon, would move this 'civilisation' on a stage further - a return to the WILD.

Rewilding does not imply a depiction of savagery. It rejects redundant land management techniques that lure people away from natural existence to make way for development, cultivation and control. It poses many challenges, none perhaps more significant than accepting who is ultimately in charge. Is it Nature or is it Man, one species within Nature?

The next challenge would be land reassignment. People need Nature, Nature needs space. Acknowledging Nature's needs would neatly frame the boundaries within which to work. Man is innovative and can readily find solutions. Set the parameters and you're away ...

Happy life on earth ... and maybe too in the cosmos!

 


 

Rewilding Event: 22nd October 2015

Join: George Monbiot and other UK leading experts to discuss making the vision a reality! Thursday 22nd October 2015, 7pm-10:00pm approx, at the Westway Cinema, Cork Street, Frome, Somerset BA11 1BL.

Visit Voice of Nature for full information on tickets, subscriptions and everything else. The event is a partnership between Voice of Nature and Angelfish films.

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