When I first read Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis, I had a strange feeling of dissatisfaction. For me, it was a story where nothing the main character does achieves an ultimate sense of meaning. As a child, you are told that stories have a beginning, middle and end to build a sense of narrative. There is an idea of progression that is supposed to reach some kind of worthwhile end result. Now, while a happy ending was what made my children's stories comforting, as an adult I took a bit more convincing. How can we reach definitive endings within our current world of postmodern relativism? How can we find meaning and who decides what is meaningful? This is particularly true when it comes to environmentalism. We are exposed to so many disturbing statistics, rebuttals and political agendas, it is hard to encapsulate our relationship with the environment.
However, re-reading Metamorphosis again while studying Albert Camus' absurd philosophy gave me a start. Absurdism is the belief that human existence or just existence, in general, is an absurd reality. It lacks any definitive or overarching meaning. However far from lapsing into existential nihilism, Albert Camus's Myth of Sisyphus encourages us to find meaning in the struggle itself. He writes, "there is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn". This rebellion in the face of oblivion is surprisingly optimistic. And it is this sentiment that I use to approach the topic of rewilding.
A perspective devoid of anthropometric authority or capitalistic progressive idealism has a lot to offer. In the first place, our entire relationship with our environment in the Western world has hinged on bending the world around us to our will. As a result, we've seen ecological devastation like never before. The findings of the major environmental assessments such as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MES) concluded that such is the depletion of natural resources on this planet, that we no longer can guarantee a secure future for generations to come.
To this end, the term Anthropocene is used by both scientists and social commentators to describe our current era, where, never before have we seen a time period where human impact or existence has been so dominant on our planet. The age of the human is quite ironic when you consider that it is this age that might lead to the destruction of our own species.
During the dawn of the anthropogenic era, we lived through the industrial revolution and the renaissance, both of which purported an idea that has stuck with us as humans: the idea of advancement. Human advancement is a teleological thread that was developed through rhetorics of science and, controversially, social anthropology. In the 1800s, anthropologists such as E.B. Taylor and Lewis H. Morgan propagated the popular belief that cultures went through different stages of evolution from "savagery" to "civilised". Of course, these ideas have long since been disputed. Yet there is still a temptation in popular culture to substantiate the idea that human society is advancing towards some futuristic state of evolution. From Star Trek to Terminator we see technological advancements and social evolution at its finest. People often say ‘think about how far we've come,’ but what have we sacrificed in this elusive pursuit of advancement?
This is where I want to take us to rewilding. Rewilding is the philosophy of allowing nature to take the reins. It's about giving up the illusion of control that advancement offers and relinquishing the authority of human meaning. The absurdity of rewilding is that we are succeeding meaning to the greater powers of nature. In a sense, we take nature as the meaning of our lives. It’s almost impossible not to reach this conclusion, given how much we rely upon the fruits of our environment to survive. Yet, humans often take their centrality in the natural world for granted. However, humans are only one part of a greater ecosystem. An ecosystem on which we ourselves are reliant. Studies by anthropologists such as Anthony Oliver-Smith and Susanna M. Hoffman have demonstrated that our damage to the environment has left many modern cultures increasingly vulnerable to disasters in the natural world and social inequality.
Rewilding is about letting the ecosystem recover and in truth, ourselves to recover from the environmental pressure we now find ourselves under. According to Rewild Britain, the benefits of rewilding include cutting down on carbon and reversing biodiversity loss, as well as the resilience to natural disasters which I have mentioned. Yet we also see some risks associated with rewilding. The international union for conservation of nature notes that poorly managed rewilding efforts can lead to contention with local people. One study, in the Journal of Applied Ecology, found that stakeholders were often concerned about the uncertain outcomes of rewilding. Previous studies of rewilding have yet to determine where long-term rewilding will lead.
In the face of this uncertainty, I ask us to return to absurdity again. There is no certainty that what we know now will hold true for the future, but the contention of absurdity means that even if we did know, there are no assurances in the meaning we find there. Moreover, such meaning devoted purely to a human future once again disconnects us from the natural world and non-human existences contained within it.
While there may come a time when science can give us better conclusions about efforts to recover the natural world, at the same time scientific objectivism also depersonalizes and abstracts nature in a way that is often tailored to capitalist development. As Hume's theory of causality testifies, "causes and effects are discoverable not by reason, but by experience". This is especially true if we consider that the concept of wilderness in itself is tenuous at best.
Geographer William Denenvan demonstrated this point in his research that concluded previously thought untouched pre-colonial landscapes in the Americas were, in fact, heavily influenced by indigenous peoples. There is no such thing as the pristine untouched wilderness. More realistically, humans and non-humans have always worked symbiotically to produce our environment. These spaces are produced under a tangled mess of biotic, abiotic, political and social influences. They are not stable or unchanging but in constant states of transition. Ecologist Richard Hobbs calls this the 'novel ecosystem'. This notion accepts the inherent human influences in the concepts we have about the environment. Rather than imagining there is a state of untouched wildness we can return to, it emphasises that we must try to better predict how our environments are changing and the reasons for these changes.
To this end, let's talk about the experience rewilding offers. Perhaps the absurdity of rewilding lies in revolting against the idea that the non-humans who make up our environment don't have just as many claims to meaning and existential realisation as humans do. This is important for how we relate to the environment for a number of reasons. Anthropologist Key Milton elaborates in her book Loving nature that identifying personhood in non-human beings can form a basis of care and empathy that is missing from a hard science approach to conservation. Her studies in environmental education support the idea that emotional connection is essential for fostering positive relationships with our environment. Perception of personhood is critical in this sense for fostering interest and motivation to work towards solutions to our current environmental problems.
Another aspect of how rewilding can help form caring relationships with the environment lies in what Milton calls "intensity" of experience. Our planet has been stripped down and domesticated for our benefit. We no longer need to fear the rain, nor beasts of the land. If you live in the city, you are encapsulated from nature so succinctly that we hardly know where we get the clothes on our backs nor the food in our bellies. For hunter-gatherer societies who were extensively exposed to nature, there was a sense of reverence and life that pervaded the natural world. I don't mean to indulge in naturalistic idealism here. The point is that the intensity of our exposure to nature has been placated, and as a result we have to find new ways to reestablish that bond.
Rewilding may be a human construct. However, it is not just about giving us some romantic sense of wildness again, it is about a resurrected experience of the natural world. Absurdity is just one way to reposition our experience as humans and that of other non-human persons. But in the first place, is it so absurd to believe that in all the vastness of nature, we as humans are not the supreme power in this world?
And if we aren't, what is?