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Re-Wilding the Earth
Jamais Cascio   Jul 13, 2012   Open The Future  

Efforts to restore the ecology in many parts of the planet would require significant levels of geoengineering.

One of the more interesting panels at the 2012 Aspen Environmental Forum was a discussion of whether “nature” was even still a viable concept. It’s broadly accepted that humankind has had such a profound impact on the Earth that there remains no part of the planet yet untouched, no part of our ecosystems that hasn’t been altered by human activity.

Even Antarctic lakes kilometers under glacial ice are subject to human fiddling. The question is, is this a permanent change? Can we do anything to reverse the HTML Tutorial Anthropocene?

The debate got a bit nasty, as these are positions driven as much by emotion as by science. According to one perspective (call it the “Gardeners”), we face a choice between moderating/steering the Anthropocene versus unsuccessfully fighting against it; according to the other perspective (call it the “Re-Wilders”), it’s a choice between reversing the Anthropocene versus surrendering to it (and “surrendering” is definitely the concept—at one point, E. O. Wilson rather pointedly asked another panelist, Emma Marris, where she had planted her white flag).

These appear to be hard-to-reconcile positions. It’s easy to see the Gardeners’ argument that “you can’t step in the same stream twice,” that reversing the Anthropocene is simply impossible; at the same time, it’s difficult to refute the Re-Wilders’ assertion that this would essentially abandon the natural world, as it gives an excuse for limiting efforts to push back against the Anthropocene.

This debate is relevant to my interests, of course, and I have sympathies for both points of view. But there’s a fascinating element to the situation that hasn’t receive enough attention: perhaps counter-intuitively, any effort to “re-wild” parts of the Earth would require significant levels of geoengineering.

Re-wilding wouldn’t just mean leaving things alone, not if the goal is to do more than allow a mix of weakened native species and fast-growing invasive species to fight it out. Existing contamination isn’t going to go away, at least not in human timescales. Broken ecosystems would eventually renew, but with new (and newly-adapted) species. Unless the Re-Wilder strategy is to wait until the Earth no longer holds any humans (whether due to extinction or exodus), any goal to re-establish a truly natural form of nature requires that we do so actively.

“Actively” means, primarily, figuring out how to restore and protect viable ecosystems, including the elimination of invasive species and the re-introduction of native plants and animals. This is a seriously complex subject, one that we’re only beginning to understand. Re-creating a natural ecosystem means more than just shipping in some potted plants and zoo animals; everything from pollenating insects to soil microbes would need to be restored.

Moreover, part of the present contamination of natural spaces comes from human-driven temperature increases, so a fundamental debate within the re-wilding movement would inevitably concern the question of solar radiation management geoengineering. If we don’t try to return to pre-industrial temperatures, any ecosystem restoration is doomed; conversely, if we do try to shift temperatures back… well, we’re just gardening.

And that’s the underlying irony of this debate: the only way to truly re-wild the Earth would be to do active management. In fact, one could argue that a re-wilding strategy that just meant leaving parts of the planet alone without any attempt to clean up and restore ecosystems is even more of an example of “planting the white flag” than any active biosphere gardening might be. Saying “it’ll get better if you don’t touch it” only works if you don’t mind waiting a few hundred thousand years (or more); it may feel good as an ideology, but it sucks as planetary stewardship. If we want to return our planet to pre-Anthropocene conditions, we’ll have to get our hands dirty.

Jamais Cascio is a Senior Fellow of the IEET, and a professional futurist. He writes the popular blog Open the Future.


I’m still unsure what this “nature” is supposed to be that we’re going back to.  Is this driven by fans of medieval metaphysics, wherein humans hold a special place below God as stewards of the Earth?  Where “free will” makes humans special and so distinct from the otherwise-perfect “natural” actions of other animals?

Why reverse the effects of humans on the environment, and not other animals?  What is the actual goal being served by this “re-wilding”?

Actually, it could be accomplished without geo-engineering via very high levels of land value taxation. Of course, doing so would mean faster economic productivity too, even though the efficiency of land use would improve… so think of it as a non-primitivist form of rewilding.

However, I must caution when you say we ought to actually “restore” the monstrosity that is “the wild.” It is an enormous and needless nightmare of perpetual carnage and misery.

If we want to do anything aesthetically similar, let’s instead follow David Pearce’s advice and construct a pan-species welfare state.

Since getting to the technological stage where we can do some of the things Pearce talks about is of vital importance, I am not keen on ending the misery in the wild in the near term. I want to see faster progress of a sustainable sort, so I take the position that we should fully recapture land values to promote the most efficient use of land.

That sounds about right, though I’m skeptical geoengineering projects as well as the construction of nature as nonhuman and inherently desirable.

This is an important essay in my view. The fact is that there are very good reasons to want to maintain and/or restore so-called “natural” (i.e. pre-human) aspects of our environment, namely that this is the environment where humans tend, with our stone age brains, to feel most comfortable. Of course we want all the facilities and security that comes (at least for some of us) with modernity, but we also (again, some of us more than others admittedly) crave the spiritual refreshment that comes from “getting out in nature”. And that is difficult to do if there is no “nature” to get out in. Furthermore, the self-hatred and Luddism of misanthropic environmentalists is one of the things that prevents us from deploying technology to do this. And Jamais is right: without some pretty radical technology, we can forget it.

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