Rewilding – the ethical imperative

  • Written by  William S. Lynn
  • Published in Opinions
Rewilding – the ethical imperative Holly Kuchera
27 Nov
We have allowed rewilding to be seen as another big conservation project, instead of a deep ethical vision of how we ought to live

I spent much of my early life at an isolated cabin in the north woods of Canada. My first memory is of a black bear and I pressing our noses together on either side of a window pane as we gazed at each other. Moose, wolves, and other wildlife, large and small, were constant companions in our family’s life. So too were domestic animals whom we saw as immediate family. This was my first experience with what the celebrated philosopher and animal ethicist Mary Midgley calls the ‘mixed community’ — one where human and other beings, wild and domestic, co-inhabit, sometimes cooperate, and sometimes conflict in a shared landscape.

So when I saw George Monbiot’s TED talk and read his book on rewilding, Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea, and Human Life (2014), I resonated with his sense of wonder and vision for a more verdant and just world.

And yet there remains something missing for me in the many works on rewilding written over the years. This has nothing to do with what proponents of rewilding advocate — the need to rewild (conserve and restore) much of the earth (up to half) to protect the planets’ biodiversity, and sustain the rich diversity of human communities into the indefinite future. It has rather to do with what is missing, namely a sense that rewilding is not only for our own benefit, but a direct moral responsibility we owe animals and nature to put right what we have so grievously harmed. We have allowed rewilding to be seen as another big conservation project, instead of a deep ethical vision of how we ought to live in a more-than-human world.

One moment that brought this point home was during the recent ‘Living Large’ conference held in Washington D.C. on human coexistence with wolves, bears, and lions. I was there to talk about the ethics of managing wolves and other large carnivores, and what the implications are for current and future public policy. After the talk I was asked if we simply needed to accept with grace the loss of wildlife and wildness. That with the advent of the anthropocene, it was too late for wild nature much less rewilding. The world’s biodiversity must simply retreat in the face of humanity converting other creatures habitats into our own ‘humanitats’. While my response was a very polite and otherwise worded ‘hell no’, I understand the sentiment.

Sometimes it seems the problems that beset humanity are already overwhelming, e.g., domestic and international violence, inequalities of wealth and power, climate change. We simply have no room in our personal or political life to address matters such as rewilding. One answer, of course, is that rewilding is a precondition for addressing some of these problems. For instance, the economic value of nature’s services is currently valued between $125-145 trillion per year, and retaining and restoring ecosystem health is key to human wellbeing into the future. In recognition of this the Obama administration in the United States recently made ecosystem services a required element of policy analysis for federal government actions.

More insidious are remonstrations that we must renounce or relinquish our care for animals and nature because humans take precedence. When it comes to critiques of rewilding, we hear this from many places. Many academics claim that nature is nothing but a ‘social construction’ and we might instead think about the world as if it were a mall. Climate bullies in think tanks like the Breakthrough Institute blithely declare environmentalism dead and imply non-climate concerns (like biodiversity and animal protection) as inessential and a distraction. And most recently, advocates for the anthropocene have transformed the debate about geological eras into a justification for humans managing global ecology — as if that has worked out so well to date.

Think of it like this. Would we council grace, submission, and acceptance to communities marginalised for their race, class, gender, and/or ethnicity? Some do, but we rightly call this racism, classism, sexism, and ethnocentrism. Why then should we not also seek a distinctive sense of justice for non-human beings and the natural world? Why is it praiseworthy to speak out for justice when human beings are treated unethically, but we should hold our tongues about rewilding when it comes to being in right relationship with the non-human world?

The answer often lies in moral world views about humans and nature. For some, animals and the rest of nature have only extrinsic (instrumental) value. They are a means to human ends, biological machines, functional units of ecosystems, resources and commodities for us to use and abuse, elements of ecological services. This worldview goes by various names — dominionism, human exceptionalism, anthropocentrism, speciesism — each with its own distinctive connotation. But that need not worry us here. The larger point is that in these world views, animals and nature exist outside the moral community so we have no direct moral responsibilities to them.

This bloodless view of the non-human world has been thoroughly debunked for many years now. Whether it is through ethics or science, we know that a great many animals are aware and self-aware (sentient and sapient), manifesting many of the elements we cite for recognising moral value in ourselves. We also know that many non-human animals such as wolves, lions, dogs, and cats have a sense of fairness, reciprocity, and empathy for others that is similar to the springs of our own ethical consciousness.

It is for this reason that we say people and animals have intrinsic (inherent) value. We are all ends in and of ourselves, not resources and commodities to be used and abused, not cogs in some greater social or natural machine. Moreover, we are inextricably nested in landscapes of ecological and social relations. This means we can help or harm others, and that makes how we treat animals and the rest of nature of direct moral concern.

When it comes to rewilding, then, it is not solely an effort to save biodiversity and create ecological stability for human well being — as crucial as that is. It is, and ought to be, an effort to do right by the other animals and the rest of nature to whom we are morally accountable. Let the anthropocene not end as it started, as a time of immense misery for nature and society. Rather let it be a time when we as a species morally mature, and embrace an ethical vision of restorative justice for people, animals, and nature.

William S. Lynn is a research scientist at the Marsh Institute, Clark University and a Senior Fellow for Ethics and Public Policy at the Centre for Urban Resilience, Loyola Marymount University.

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