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The art of living a wild and natural life in a poisoned world

How Did We Get Into This Mess: Politics, Equality, Nature
Forfatter: George Monbiot
Forlag: Verso (2016)
What naturalness are we really trying to find back?



Edward O. Wilson
Half Earth: Our Planet's Fight for Life
Liverlight, 2016

Back to nature! This Rousseau-inspired slogan not only expresses a desire for a more authentic life and has served as a credo for the radical environmental movement. Now it may seem that nature itself must be brought back to nature – and this raises the question of what the natural actually is.

At the center of EO Wilson's book Half Earth stands the idea that we must give Earth back its pristine wilderness; not in the sense that we must dismantle civilization, but half of land and sea should be kept untouched. This, according to Wilson's estimate, is far more than we currently cherish. So we must restore the wilderness where we can.

EO Wilson is known as the founder of sociobiology. Completely in line with Aristotle, who counted both ants, bees and humans as son politician, or political beasts, Wilson has studied the social formation of ants and humans in parallel. Human co-operation among themselves has made us an evolutionary success – but where other species have stabilized in a symbiotic balance with other animals and plants, human civilization has tended to disrupt and destroy entire ecosystems. At the end of The Social Conquest of the Earth (2013), he stated that we must first and foremost save ecosystems – and thereby solve the climate problems. This book concludes by swearing that in the 21st century we can make Earth a "permanent paradise for mankind". The book Half Earth trying to follow up on this utopian project.

George Monbiots How Did We Get Into This Mess? is at first glance far more pessimistic. With his eco-anarchist background, he is far more sinister – and far more socially critical than Wilson. Yet Monbiot is also an optimistic undertone, a belief that nature has a healing power – and that it can also be healed. The key word for Monbiot is "rewilding". This notion is not his own invention: "Rewilding" is the fight for a whole activist movement that not only theorizes, but also occupies, protects, reintroduces species and plant trees – which in short tries to make the world wilder. Such a burning commitment and this kind of rage towards civilization may seem strange in a Norwegian context, where we have plenty of relatively untouched areas to deal with.

Yes, there is a nature. In the British Isles it looks different. Monbiot's encounter with the "rewilding" movement is portrayed both thoroughly and poignantly in the book Feral from a few years back. Initially, Monbiot clarifies two misconceptions: First, it is not about getting nature back to its original state. It would take centuries to get the coast of the British Isles covered by temperate tropical forests. Nor can we ever expect to be able to live as indigenous people. Secondly, it is not about rejecting civilization. Admittedly, he has a chapter in his latest book called "Civilization is drilling", but here's the point too: Civilization must be made richer, more exciting and alive by bringing it more in touch with wild nature.

International has rewilding has become a movement since the term was introduced by Dave Forman in the late 1980s. We have not found a good word in Norwegian, so far we borrow the English term, as NRK's ​​Ulf Myrvold does in the documentary series Rewilding, nature returns, coming out next year. Rewilding aims to restore ecosystems to a more original and rich state. Ecology maps nature's food chains and symbiotic relationships, and the more we study these conditions, the clearer that "everything is connected". But in itself this is too abstract: we must understand how it all comes together to understand how important ecology is. This is where intermediaries such as EO Wilson and George Monbiot – and Norwegian nature journalists for that matter – are invaluable. The ecologists were pioneers in the environmental movement, and books such as Rachel Carsons The Silent Spring taught us how pesticides used against insects to protect crops at a higher level poison the birds that eat the insects. Those at the very top of the food chain are hit hardest. The birds of prey that eat birds that eat insects end up with higher and deadly concentrations of poison – and succumb.

Monbiot is almost obsessed with the predators at the top of the food chain and the role they play in ecosystems. One example he gives is the meaning of whale dung. Whales that eat in the deep shit in higher strata of the ocean, thus fertilizing the plant life in the zone where there is enough light for photosynthesis. As the whale tribes slowly begin to grow again after centuries of excessive catching, the whole sea comes to life again. The star example of rewilding, also elaborated by EO Wilson, is the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone Park in the United States in the nineties. When the wolf came in, there were fewer deer. The deer also became more shy and stopped grazing in the open along the river banks. Thus, the deciduous forest shot up in the weather, and in this a new fauna of insects flourished, causing the fish in the river to triple in number. With the new deciduous forest also came songbirds, as well as beavers who built ponds that provided good conditions for amphibians and reptiles. All thanks to the wolves.

Creeping decay. Such effects are difficult to predict – and here's a double point, according to Wilson. First, ecology is based on unbelievably patient mapping. It cannot derive truths about nature from abstract principles, but must carefully find various dependencies that can be both hidden and surprising. The only abstract principle that applies is this: Untouched is always better. First, ecosystems are vulnerable in ways we can hardly guess, so that untouched nature has a tremendous value – not because it offers a complete catalog of species, but because this complete catalog is necessary so that the natural area does not gradually decay.

Like the dry hills around the Mediterranean and the highlands of Spain, the English coast has also been deprived of its original species richness – and we are left with some shrubs, rubble and grass.

Decaying natural systems are precisely what Monbiot finds when he longs for wild nature to move to Snowdonia in Wales. First, he enthusiastically embarks on hiking in the open meadows, where he travels practically alone. Soon the euphoria turns into deep disappointment: Not only are humans absent, there are no animals or birds to see, hardly even insects. The moors, celebrated as a pristine wilderness, is really a desert – a wrecked piece of nature. The soil is eroded by sheep – and long, long before the forest was cleared, and then eradicated through harvesting. Like the dry hills around the Mediterranean and the highlands of Spain, the English coast has also been deprived of its original species richness – and we are left with some shrubs, rubble and grass. Harvest plus sheep holding is equal to erosion. In the "Sheepwrecked" chapter, Monbiot goes on an unbridled attack on the "woolly caterpillars" that eat to death in the English highlands. Part of the problem is that many view the ruined, degraded landscape as natural. The cultural landscape and the man-made desert are claiming their right, and after a generation no one notices what has been lost.

In the conservation literature, this is called "shifting baseline syndrome": The people of each generation experience the condition of the ecosystems they were familiar with in childhood, as normal. This also raises the question of what naturalness we should strive for. Both Wilson and Monbiot believe that we must consider the case on a case-by-case basis: A Europe of lions and elephants seems undeniably a good radical step. For Monbiot, every step toward the original is a step in the right direction – and this is what matters: a movement toward more wild nature in a world where all trends so far go in the opposite direction. He gives poignant descriptions of how an engaged forester with hard and determined work has managed to conjure up entire forests on the blown Welsh moors.

Nature governs itself? Wilson paints a more comprehensive and global picture of the dangers that threaten biodiversity. Science has mapped about two million species. Estimates for how many have not yet been discovered vary between five million and over one hundred million. Wilson estimates that roughly half of all Earth species will be extinct before the 21st century is over, but thinks three-quarters is more realistic. It should not be obvious that such a drastic event requires equally drastic countermeasures, but Wilson doubts about how the climate problem has completely overshadowed the mass extinction, while granting university funding consistently to molecular biology over ecology and natural history studies.

He thinks we are waking up and understanding the situation, but that it will take time before we get out of what he calls a "philosophical and religious fever." The delusions he is aiming for are not just grotesque cultural misunderstandings such as Chinese medicine that drives rhinos and tigers to extinction because they believe horns and claws have magical healing powers. It's more about popular misconceptions of ecology. According to Wilson, the most dangerous thought imaginable is the one that makes the idea anthropocene, the geological section initiated by man-made changes, into an argument for letting it scour. In a distorted argument, Darwinism's principles are turned to nature itself: Let the strongest survive. Extermination is not necessarily something wrong, we have enough species left and are doing well on a humanized planet! This is not only cynical and anthropocentric, but also naive: a nature where ecosystems collapse, threatening the entire biosphere – agriculture, aquaculture, the atmosphere – all the nature we depend on.

Another variant of this is the argument that "there is no longer any nature," or at least no wilderness; everything is affected by man-made climate change. Both Wilson and Monbiot define wilderness as a freely evolving nature that grows and unfolds on its own terms. This is entirely possible even in a poisoned and changed world, as the blossoming of wildlife in the evacuated Chernobyl area has shown. Another common misconception is that migrated species will simply adapt to the new flora and fauna, since nature always finds a solution. This couldn't have been more wrong. Invading species and parasites are a huge and growing problem that nature might "solve", but at the cost that entire ecosystems are breaking down, perhaps forever. Hawaii is an example of this: Wilson calls the islands "a world capital of extinctions". An introduced Mexican bush growth was stifling the primeval forest on the entire Hawaiian archipelago – and literally had to be swept away by a crowd of volunteers.

Vulgarwinism. In other words, it is important that the concept of "it would" be reserved for nature. A technological civilization that "grows wild" is and will be irresponsible. Monbiot, who is both a zoologist and activist on the left, has a keen eye for this form of vulgar social Darwinism. He criticizes Malthusian arguments that it is the overpopulation that is causing environmental problems: Population growth in sub-Saharan Africa contributes minimally to the greenhouse effect, since energy consumption is consistently near zero compared to the rich part of the world. Deeper, Malthusianism is an old conservative lie whose function is to bring shame on the poor to defend an economic system that is the cause of their poverty. He finds another form of vulgar Darwinism with conservative philosopher Matt Ridley, who is so optimistic that he is approaching blindness, applying evolutionary principles to justify the market always creating better conditions for everyone, including nature. Both Monbiot and Wilson deliberately convey unpleasant truths and give the natural problems sharp contours, knowing that most will try to smooth over such large-scale unpleasantness. Wilson, however, allows another type of optimistic speculation: "The biosphere has produced human consciousness, developed consciousness has given rise to culture – and culture will find a way to save the biosphere." But it will not happen by simply leaving the market and other "cultural forces" to themselves, as if they were a second-order nature who knows how to do it themselves. Unrestrained growth, uncontrolled migration of species, habitat destruction, pollution – all this must be actively and persistently limited. Nature must be wilder – but civilization must be tamed!

Anders Dunker
Philosopher. Regular literary critic in Ny Tid. Translator.

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