Here come the New Radicals

The unrestrained idealism and energy of young people could dramatically force the pace of change when it comes to rewilding, says Nick Harvey

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Young people often have a natural tendency to be radical. This is much documented and derided in many a film and TV show, with the music, clothes, fashions and politics of the past generation being thrown off and regularly mocked.

We grow up within a particular system and when we are very young and striving to get a grasp on the world, we live in we do so unquestioningly. This is how things are, how they have always been and how they should be. In terms of conservation, for me at least, this meant parks and reserves. Nature is fenced off, it exists somewhere else, separate from people. After we have done a bit of growing up, we have gained some experiences, met some other people and had a bit of education, this starts to change.

Independence breeds big thinking

Why are things the way they are? Surely they could be better? This attitude often arises during student days – the liberation of independence comes along with the chance to grapple with big ideas and rub shoulders with people from different walks of life. These things along with the fact that young people haven’t had the chance to become jaded or cynical often makes them radical in their beliefs.

Can we apply this to conservation? One of the greatest gulfs in generational attitudes in modern history arose due to the environmentalist movement that sprang up in the early 1970s. This movement grew out of, and was heavily influenced by, the youth and hippies of the 60s with free love, peace, and flares being the icons. While it would be reductionist to ascribe all environmentalism of the time to these values, it played a major part. Poet and activist June Jordan expressed it this way: When we heard about the hippies, the barely more than boys and girls who decided to try something different… we laughed at them. We condemned them, our children, for seeking a different future. We hated them for their flowers, for their love, and for their unmistakable rejection of every hideous, mistaken compromise that we had made throughout our hollow, money-bitten, frightened, adult lives.”

It is my belief that rewilding holds the potential to provide such a radical recasting of values within the conservation movement. If the new generation of conservationists can grasp it with both hands and make it work, it has the ability to bring about a paradigm shift.

At the end of an Earthwatch debate on rewilding, the conclusion given by an experienced conservationist begins with: Most of us have spent most of our lives… living in a world where what conservation was about was, understandably, holding the line. Let us, for Pete’s sake, stop things getting worse.”

Less bad” is not good enough

Much conservation of the past century can be characterised by a doom and gloom narrative. But what if we don’t want to just hold the line”, stop things being less bad or even just stop them getting worse more slowly. There is no inspiration in this aim. To use a military analogy, where is the glory in conducting a fighting retreat? No other field that seeks to change the world for the better, such as poverty reduction or medicine, has this as its aim.

There are legitimate objections to rewilding. From an ecological point of view, disease transmission, the danger of introduced species becoming invasive and value of novel ecosystems have all been cited. Rewilding could be used as an excuse for the forcible removal of people from land, in the tradition of some historical conservation methods such as the removal of Native Americans from their lands to create parks in the USA. There are also worries about the erasure of ancient and important cultures such as upland sheep farming in Wales. These, along with the fact that rural people need to make a living, are all concerns from a social perspective. Many conservationists also distrust this new approach, thinking it might divert funds and attention away from more established and proven methods.

As the next generation of conservationists, we cannot throw out all the achievements of those who have come before. It would be disrespectful to their efforts, ridiculous from a conservation perspective and isn’t what is advocated. Rewilding is also not being held up as a panacea or a solution to environmental degradation in all places globally. Society still needs to grow food for itself after all. Paul Jepson puts it this way: We are beginning to treat our UK nature like a Grannie. A cherished, interesting and insightful Grannie who we enjoy being with, but a Grannie who is ailing and not the force she once was… We don’t want to kill off Grannie and rip up all the advances of the last 40 years.”

An evocative vision

But we do need a vision to get behind, to fight for and to passionately advocate. Rewilding might be the one. The concept of wilderness is evocative and important to conceptions of nature and conservation. It is often taken to mean a pristine place that is free from human control. This meaning is problematic in the modern age with the global reach of humans and the realisation that our footprint stretches back much longer than we thought. But words take on the meaning we ascribe them. Let us define wild to mean what we want it to – not pristine but rather untamed and self-directed. 

Past conservation approaches can be likened to Big Brother, with everything watched, controlled and regulated. Can we, at least in some places, move away from this? We could allow some places to move towards a kind of environmental anarchism and leave them to be self-governed. Doing this would not only allow the rewilding of nature but also, as George Monbiot says, a rewilding of human life” and a life richer in adventure and surprise”. Rewilding, alongside more traditional approaches, has the potential to inspire and to benefit both humans and biodiversity.

The new generation of conservationists has the chance to take rewilding and shape it so it can be at the forefront of a new conservation paradigm. Radicalism of course is not limited to the young. It can often come out in the old as well who have the experience of a life and the ability to look back down the years and reflect on how things could have been different. E.O. Wilson’s new book Half Earth: The Struggle to Save the Rest of Life, due out this year, is largely devoted to how we could set aside 50% of the Earth for us, and 50% for other species. Perhaps this isn’t achievable. But even if a vision is impossible, does that mean that it is not worth striving for?

About the author

Nick’s interest in conservation stemmed from a childhood spent outdoors and reading books by his hero, Gerald Durrell. Having completed a degree in zoology at the University of Cambridge, he is currently studying for a Masters in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management at the University of Oxford. Next year he begins a PhD in Manchester which will explore why populations of Easter black rhinos are not breeding well in Kenya. This piece originally appeared under the heading Radical Rewilding on the Action for Conservation website.