George Monbiot is never afraid to say what he thinks, and we should admire him for this, even when on occasion we disagree with him. And to be fair, as I read Feral I found much I both agreed with and admired. What first struck me – and this may come as a surprise to those who read his polemics in The Guardian – is how, when he is released from the need to make his point in a short and topical newspaper column, Monbiot reveals a surprisingly lyrical, even romantic, sensibility towards the natural world.
Having moved to rural Wales with his family, he has rediscovered a love of being immersed in nature – sometimes, as when his kayak capsized offshore, in a quite literal way. Feral contains passages of poetic beauty that rank with those of any of the current crop of nature writers – indeed he shows a welcome tendency actually to write about the wild creatures he sees, rather than treating them as bit-part players in a literary notion of ‘wilderness’, as some are inclined to do.
But what really marks Monbiot out as an important writer and thinker is that he does not simply write about nature for its own sake, but constantly links the more experiential, personal passages back to the thrust of his argument. This is, in essence, that we need to allow nature to ‘go feral’, which he defines as ‘a wild state, especially after escape from captivity or domestication’. This means taking back our land and its wildlife from those vested interests that currently control it, and trying to reverse the loss of habitat and decline in species which, if we do not manage to do so, will end in ecological catastrophe.
Monbiot’s solution is ‘rewilding’, a word he points out did not even enter the dictionary until two years ago. ‘Rewilding’ is one of those weasel words that, as Humpty Dumpty says, ‘means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less’.
For some, it signifies a return to a primeval, unspoilt world. However, this conveniently disregards the fact that our natural habitats are all to a greater or lesser extent created by human actions. It also misunderstands the fundamental nature of ecosystems: that they are dynamic and changing, and that we cannot fix them in time, even if we want to.
Monbiot’s approach to rewilding recognises its dynamic quality. He wants ‘to permit ecological processes to resume’ – by which he means allowing the land and its plants and animals to restore themselves, with minimal interference from us. For him, the preservation of what he considers degraded habitats, such as heath and moorland, blanket bog and rough grassland, is deeply misguided, ‘as if conservationists in the Amazon had decided to protect the cattle ranches, rather than the rainforest’.
I can see his point, but those of us who love Dartford warblers, nightjars and other heathland species might baulk at the idea of simply letting the habitat fend for itself, which would return it to scrubby woodland in a few decades. ‘Letting nature decide’ is fine in theory, but in practice it would mean the loss of many of the habitats and species we have come to treasure.
Elsewhere, Monbiot is on firmer ground. His chapters on bringing back top predators such as the lynx and wolf, on the wrecking of Britain’s uplands as a result of overgrazing by sheep and on the need to reconnect children with nature are well argued and passionate. He also makes a plea for us to understand ‘Shifting Baseline Syndrome’, the process by which each generation takes what it finds in nature as the norm, failing to appreciate that species might have once been far more widespread or common – or indeed rare – than they are today. Whether this means we should reintroduce elephants into our woodlands because their ancestors were here in prehistoric times is a moot point; but it does show up our regrettable tendency to view nature in terms of our own experience, rather than taking the long view.
Monbiot is also very strong on the strategy we need to employ as conservationists: the necessity of putting positive arguments forward for the benefits of rewilding. As he says, ‘We know what we are against; now we must explain what we are for.’ He is under no illusions as to the difficulties we face if we are to succeed: the inertia and sheer stupidity of the current political system mean it is almost impossible to make the large-scale changes in areas such as farming, fishing and planning laws that are required to rewild effectively large tracts of Britain and the world.
But overall George Monbiot is cautiously optimistic, and in Feral he has outlined a vision for the future that, though it may not be perfect, is a lot better than the one we have at the moment. His book deserves to be read by anyone involved in nature conservation, or indeed anyone who shares his passion for the natural world in all its wonder and glory.