The Rewilding Program: Proposal for an Anti-Industrial Strategy

Why Rewilding is Necessary

Rewilding is the process of restoring nature, including human nature, to its unmanaged, wild state, primarily by decreasing human and technological control. For instance, to rewild river ecosystems downstream from a dam, we would remove the dam; to rewild animals, we would teach them necessary but lost survival skills and then slowly reintroduce them to their natural habitats.

In conservation rewilding is necessary because development has almost entirely destroyed Earth’s wild lands, and continues to wreak havoc on the remaining ones. The results — species extinctions, loss of biodiversity, pollution, climate change, frequent ecological disasters — are well-known. Thus the need for land restoration efforts to mitigate, and in some areas potentially end, the destruction.

At the same time as technological development has destroyed wild environments, it has created bubbles of technological environments. Humans within these technological bubbles have had to be modified, psychologically and physiologically, to live in them. And as the technological environments, more and more, mediate the human relationship with nature, those with control over the technological environment gain the ability to shape those who merely inhabit it. The psychological and physiological problems, proliferating among individuals, eventually manifest in the overall culture.

Meanwhile, our technological society is producing threats itself, a handful of them existential: nuclear weaponry, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology are only the most media-ready examples. But even lesser-talked-about problems like the precarity of the the electric grid and the completely illusory nature of the global financial system count, and may, in the end, be more decisive in determining the future of industrial society.

These three elements — loss of wildlands, cultural and psychological problems, and material threats from technological development — make it imperative that nature be restored and that technological development be stopped as much and as soon as possible. This, though, is a tall order, and a painstaking, long-term game of politics — it calls for a Rewilding Program.

Rewilding in Conservation

Rewilding as a concept in conservation first arose with the radical environmentalist movement Earth First! and, later, with The Wildlands Network. The scientific foundations of the conservation strategy were laid out in Noss and Soule’s Continental Conservation, where the authors outlined three fundamentals, called “the Three Cs”: cores, connectivity, and carnivores.

Cores are confined regions of wild land, ideally protected by The Wilderness Act or owned by a person or corporation sympathetic to land preservation. Examples include any of the wilderness areas currently a part of the US National Park System.

In 1960s Wilson and MacArthur advanced the theory of island biogeography, which demonstrated that wild areas tend to “bleed” species into extinction and have lower levels of biodiversity the more isolated from the surrounding ecology they become. Taking the implications of island biogeography to their logical conclusion, the authors of Continental Conservation argued that the bigger the core wilderness areas are, the better. More, they argued, the areas need to be as connected as possible.

The original vision for wildways.

Connecting wildlands has a number of benefits beyond mitigating biological “island” effects. Among the most significant are the numerous ways it mitigates the effects of climate change: first by allowing carbon-reducing trees to regrow and decreasing the amount of lands used by pasture animals; second by allowing animals, especially large mammals, to migrate across larger areas; and third by directly combating road development, perhaps the number one source of industrial societies’ ecological problems.

Connections between core areas are called wildways or wildlife corridors, which may be constructed as landbridges over roads or by preserving intermediary land. Although small wildways like landbridges are a fairly known concept, The Wildlands Network has proposed a few major wildways to span the North American continent. Their website contains numerous articles on the science, planning, and politics behind the project. And their bipartisan strategy integrates support from landowners, sympathetic corporations, rich donors, and more localized rewilding projects like Yellowstone to Yukon.

The final component, carnivores, is important because of the way apex predators restore the natural food web and plant growth patterns in protected areas, and because the animals themselves need protection. Efforts include the preservation of regionally important predators; increasing their population by restoring mating patterns and regulating hunting or development; and, in cases of extirpation, reintroducing the animals to their natural habitats. Ongoing campaigns involve wildcats like cougars, jaguars, and lynx, and the red wolves of North Carolina.

Fun Fact: Did you know that lions once lived in North America?

The paradigmatic example of this strategy is the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park. While the wolves were absent, elk overpopulated the area, causing a number of cascading effects on the ecosystem from their overgrazing. When the wolves were reintroduced, not only did they reverse the damage of the overgrazing Elk, they helped revive beaver and red fox populations.

The ideas behind The Wildlands Network can be and have been implemented on other continents, and I propose that the approach remain at the core of any anti-industrial effort. Although only a reform, land preservation and restoration is certainly a reform that helps. In the short-term, it mitigates problems caused by scientific and technological development. And should, as Dave Foreman suggests, “the system … come down sooner or later,” large and connected wildlands will provide the building blocks for nature to restore itself — a sort of Noah’s ark strategy. Finally, any efforts to rewild human societies are doomed to fail without an ecological base, placing absolute priority on land restoration before any other radical environmental effort. The call may be for land and freedom, but for all the aforementioned reasons land must always be the heart and soul of the program.

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The Potential for Radical Action

In Desert Solitaire Ed Abbey writes:

…I would like to introduce here an entirely new argument in what has now become a stylized debate: the wilderness should be preserved for political reasons. We may need it someday not only as a refuge from excessive industrialism but also as a refuge from authoritarian government, from political oppression. Grand Canyon, Big Bend, Yellowstone and the High Sierras may be required to function as bases for guerrilla warfare against tyranny. What reason have we Americans to think that our own society will necessarily escape the world-wide drift toward the totalitarian organization of men and institutions?

This may seem, at the moment, like a fantastic thesis. Yet history demonstrates that personal liberty is a rare and precious thing, that all societies tend toward the absolute until attack from without or collapse from within breaks up the social machine and makes freedom and innovation again possible. Technology adds a new dimension to the process by providing modern despots with instruments far more efficient than any available to their classical counterparts…

The value of wilderness, on the other hand, as a base for resistance to centralized domination is demonstrated by recent history. In Budapest and Santo Domingo, for example, popular revolts were easily and quickly crushed because an urbanized environment gives the advantage to the power with the technological equipment. But in Cuba, Algeria and Vietnam the revolutionaries, operating in mountain, desert and jungle hinterlands with the active or tacit support of a thinly dispersed population, have been able to overcome or at least fight to a draw official establishment forces equipped with all of the terrible weapons of twentieth century militarism. Rural insurrections can then be suppressed only by bombing and burning villages and countryside so thoroughly that the mass of the population is forced to take refuge in the cities; there the people are then policed and if necessary starved into submission. The city, which should be the symbol and center of civilization, can also be made to function as a concentration camp. This is one of the significant discoveries of contemporary political science.

“We must…reclaim the roads and the plowed land, halt dam construction, tear down existing dams, free shackled rivers, and return to wilderness millions and tens of millions of acres of presently settled land.” — Dave Foreman

Ed Abbey went on to become a pivotal figure in the radical conservation group Earth First!, which put into practice some of his only half-joking ideas. As founder Dave Foreman put it, Earth First! was an attempt “to expand the environmental spectrum” so that “the Sierra Club and other groups”—once seen as organizations for extremists—would be “perceived as moderates.” Taking cues from Abbey’s The Monkeywrench Gang, an infamous novel about a cadre of wilderness-loving rednecks, Foreman and others in the group did not quite encourage sabotaging, say, logging equipment, but they were very open about never condemning it. “I’m not advocating illegal activity,” Abbey wrote, “unless you’re accompanied by your parents or at night.” So the most disaffected in the conservation movement found in Earth First! an outlet, and the organization became known for all manner of illegal shenanigans, all the while bringing issues like old growth logging and rainforest protection into the fore of conservation work. Later on, Foreman would publish Eco-Defense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching to give future generations of eco-defenders a head start.

The experiment worked. Moderation in the conservation movement was now tempered by extremism. In fact, Earth First! and Ed Abbey’s novels went on to become the mother of several even-more-radical groups, like EMETIC, the eco-raiders, and the Earth Liberation Front. Of these, the latter was the most infamous, known for a series of arsons against university research labs and industrial developments. But the ELF was mostly picking its targets sporadically, without any clear means of connecting their work to the conservation movement as a whole, when they could have, for example, simply linked their targets to the original rewilding program proposed in the first issue of the Earth First! newsletter. “Consider this a warning that we will stop at nothing to expand the everglades preserve,” one might imagine a communique beginning. Instead, their statements and overall project reeked of mere lashing out, and as a result they gained a reputation as criminals before conservationists.

The Rewilding Program as proposed here provides a basis for a group like Earth First! to take real steps to advance what are now slow-moving efforts at land restoration. Even just the excitement of it would popularize the idea of wildways and, if executed as carefully as early Earth First!, could bring new conservation issues into the popular mind. Furthermore, a large number of biologists and conservationists came out of the radical environmentalism of the 60s and 70s, and one can imagine a new movement having a similar effect of attracting young, passionate minds with a love for wild things.

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Human Rewilding

Human rewilding is only a recent idea, so the ideas behind it are still developing. And because humans are such complex creatures, the objects behind human rewilding — reintroducing humans to the landscape, restoring their natural psychological patterns, etc. — will take a while to accomplish effectively. Several groups, though, are working on the problem, pulling ideas from anthropology, various types of therapy, especially psychoanalysis, and the primitive skills subculture.

Strategically human rewilding is much less important than land preservation and restoration to the rewilding program. Rewilding the land counters all three of the major problems we face today: the destruction of wild ecological processes, a lack of land for human rewilding to even begin, and major ecological and technological problems like climate change or pollution.

Still, human rewilding may serve at least three major functions for any political effort based on the rewilding program. First, it will create a group of people prepared to teach and guide others through their transition to the land. This will become extremely important when economic depression or ecological disaster makes it necessary for groups to live closer to the land. Second, the techniques of human rewilding may be a means of cohering any anti-industrial movement or tendency, the same way, say, techniques of meditation help cohere certain religious groups. Finally, a focus on human rewilding will keep front-and-center the primary justification for rewilding: humans need it to live good lives. Without a wild environment, humans suffer a host of physiological and psychological problems, and lose a connection with the natural world that may be an innate need for human development and the human mind. It is unnecessary to argue, as some conservationists have, that wild nature holds some transcendent, intrinsic value; it is enough to say that humans value it, and need it, and therefore have to protect it.

This is the most experimental part of the program, and will have to be developed more fully in the future. Part of the work of the Wild Will Project is to develop more fully techniques to reintroduce human beings into the wild.

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The Dangers of the Program

Because of the way the land conservation element of the program overlaps with state interests, it can become the basis for an authoritarian conservation politics. As our ecological problems worsen, land preservation will become a higher and higher priority for states hoping to preserve their domestic stability. In the US, in particular, many areas covered by the rewilding program cross over and through poorly populated regions, leaving room for forced, or “voluntary,” population movement programs, which only become more viable in times of economic or ecological disaster.

Further, the rewilding program runs the risk of instituting a human/nature apartheid, where laws protecting natural areas become so stringent that they lose the reason humans would value them in the first place: recreational natural areas, reconnecting to the land, etc. A prime example of this kind of revisionism comes from the ecomodernist movement, which hopes to institute many of the solutions proposed by The Wildlands Network, but simultaneously advocates speeding up technological development and shuffling people into the cities.

Similarly, the human rewilding element of the program runs the risk of slipping into technological and behavioral control, as easily as conservationist rewilding has lent itself to ecomodernism. This is an extremely important problem to pay attention to. Since human rewilding will no doubt involve some level of scientific investigation, we must recognize that the collected data will no doubt be applicable to other, more nefarious purposes. This, again, is why the central element of the program must always focus on land preservation and restoration, which directly combats the expansion of technological environments.

These kinds of top-down planning schemas are not foreign to conservation politics. Consider, for instance, the ideas of the Club of Rome, which is well-known for producing the environmentalist tract Limits to Growth:

In Nature organic growth proceeds according to a Master Plan, a Blueprint. Such a ‘master plan’ is missing from the process of growth and development of the world system. Now is the time to draw up a master plan for sustainable growth and world development based on our global allocation of all resources and a new global economic system.

Or consider the suggestion of Ronald Wright, the author of A Short History of Progress, that we institute a global government in order to have “managed capitalism.” The basis for this argument, and the subject of his book, is the current intensity of environmental degradation and the increasing disparity between the rich and poor, which he points out were two common factors in the majority of collapses in history.

Among its other uses, I propose that a radical political faction could keep authoritarian solutions at bay, or, at worst, muster up the needed conflict should they become inevitable — especially an ecoradical movement inspired by the likes of Ed Abbey.


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