The trouble with rewilding…

A rewilding movement that bases itself on arguments around overpopulation, without interrogating the power structures that are enabling it, is in danger of failing to generate the kinds of solidarities, social justice outcomes and progressive visions of wildness that we so desperately need.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Rewilding is big news in environmental conservation. At the Future of Wild Europe conference at the University of Leeds in September, where top conservation practitioners and academics met to share perspectives on all things wild, it was undoubtedly the key story. Rewilding has hit UK newspaper headlines and filtered through into global NGO strategies, spawning its own generation of institutional backing via new initiatives and organisations. Great news, you might think – and one would hope so.

But, just as environmental historian William Cronon in his now (in)famous essay The Trouble With Wilderness was perturbed by unexamined ideals of wild nature as untouched and inhuman within the environmental movement in the 1990s, I was troubled by things I was hearing at the conference in Leeds over twenty years later. In particular, I was troubled by echoes of a lingering and pernicious legacy of colonial, neo-Malthusianism that, for me, tainted the celebratory, go-getting tone.

It made me anxiously wonder – are we at risk of once again practicing conservation by dispossession, to borrow David Harvey’s well-known phrase? Have we dealt with the uncomfortable past of imperial ecology sufficiently to confidently move towards a more progressive vision of the wild as Cronon implored us to do? I worry the answer is yes to the first question, no to the second.

Before I carry on, I wish to raise the flag of unease with which I proceed and state upfront that I am a passionate supporter of wildlife conservation. The concept of rewilding intuitively appeals to me deeply. But I share William Cronon’s personal tension between “celebrat[ing] the protection of wild nature” and acting on this on the one hand (Cronon was himself a conservationist) and attending to the “task of self-criticism” and “deep reflection” on the other.

It is a tension I think we must uphold. Yet, like those who received William Cronon’s seemingly devastating critique with a sense of genuine anxiety as to which hands such an open questioning of the wilderness ideal and of environmentalism itself might fall into, I, too, proceed with trepidation. So here I attempt an affirmative critique – one that seeks to support not derail, but perhaps in other directions.

Pleistocene rewilding? Source: Pinterest

To return to the trouble (and staying with it): there are three main interlinked issues that I wish to raise about rewilding. The first deals with the problem of racialized neo-Malthusian preoccupations with carrying capacity that seem to have ongoing traction. When Toby Aykroyd, businessman and Founder of Rewilding Europe, spoke at the Leeds conference careers session to us budding ‘Early Career Scholars’, he described his post-business school personal journey into nature conservation as starting with getting involved in family planning in East Africa.

I have to say I was already quite surprised at this easy connecting of, in my mind, very historically uncomfortable terrains. I wanted to know more, to check my small alarm bell that started to ring. I discovered that Aykroyd is the co-founder of the Population and Sustainability Network in 2003, which exists to “increase the prominence of population dynamics in international development policy” promoting reproductive health and family planning services in the interests of a broader sustainable development agenda.

Provision of free family planning is a fantastic achievement in and of itself, yet when motivated by concern over natural resources and carrying capacities, and linked to power-laden development agendas, this shades into murkier territories and rationales that I find deeply uncomfortable.

Back at the conference, a panelist from Spain involved in a senior role in a Spanish conservation organization reportedly proposed (in no joking manner, were it possible to joke about such things) that one of two possible solutions to the “population problem” was either to “sterilize women” – or to educate them. I was not present at the time, but apparently he was neither challenged nor confronted on this by the audience.

Perhaps the silence was just out of unease or lack of attention. But the absence of further discussion on these threads, and a lack of desire to pull on them to see what unravels, I believe reveals a possible precarity on which some alliances are being built.

For the troubling link between nature conservation and colonial attempts to control populations has been well researched. Such ideologies have led to violent dispossession, racialized forms of controlled access and, yes, even forced sterilization. I am not saying that an involvement in family planning is similar to or the same as this in any way – but I am pointing to unnerving and deeply toxic trajectories of where such thinking can point or to what other kinds of thinking it can join up with.

Digging deeper into the genealogy of rewilding we confront further problematic ties. According to rewilding academics Jamie Lorimer et al and Dolly Jorgenson, the term was first coined in the US through a collaboration between the deep ecologist Dave Foreman and conservation biologist Michel Soule in the 1980s in the formation of the Wildlands Project.

Dave Foreman is the Founder of the controversial activist group Earth First!, author of Man Swarm: How Overpopulation is Killing the Wild World, and is current president of the US Rewilding Institute. However, Foreman has been quoted on his own organization’s website as saying

“The Aids epidemic, rather than being a scourge, is a welcome development in the inevitable reduction of human population… If [it] didn’t exist, radical environmentalists would have to invent [it].”

During the Ethiopian famine, eco-anarchist Murray Bookchin also quoted him as saying:

“The worst thing we could do in Ethiopia is to give aid [to the starving children] — the best thing would be to just let nature seek its own balance, to let people there just starve.”

That was a long time ago, but can rewilding make a leopard change its spots?

Judging by echoes of this sort of logic creeping around and seeping through the sides of sincere and progressive discussion back at the academic-practitioner conference in Leeds, not so fast. As the Weeden Foundation (a previous grant-donor for The Rewilding Institute – TRI) writes on its website: “Dave Foreman… is an outspoken advocate of stabilizing population, and TRI works to integrate population and immigration issues into its environmental analysis and message.”

I am not sure I need to spell out the implications of such a stance in the US context at a time when Donald Trump has just become the next President.


Why is this sort of highly problematic thinking not being discussed and dissected in rewilding circles? A rewilding movement that basis itself on the overpopulation factor is in danger of failing to generate the kinds of solidarities, social justice outcomes, and progressive visions of wildness that we so desperately need. Fletcher, Breitling and Puleo highlight the problem:

“By conjuring the age-old image of animalistic barbarian hordes breeding inexorably and therefore overflowing their Third World confines to threaten the security – and enjoyment – of wealthier nations, the overpopulation bogeyman helps to displace attention from systemic issues within the political economy of development, namely, the futility of pursuing sustainable development within the context of a neoliberal capitalism that characteristically exacerbates both economic inequality and environmental degradation.”

Many overpopulation supporters argue that they do acknowledge the twin role of overconsumption – as does the Population and Environment Network. However, overconsumption usually is, attributed distant second place in policy focus, if at all. “In the process, inequality itself is actually defended in the interest of sustainability”, political ecologist Robert Fletcher writes.

This brings me onto my second concern. While on the one hand overpopulation theories were subtly present in the impetus behind at least some key people’s involvement in rewilding, at the same time we learnt at the conference that one of the main reasons why it has been able to gain so much traction within the European context is due to ‘depopulation’, particularly in rural areas, largely as a result of de-agrarianisation.

Europe is indeed experiencing a dramatic decline in population, most notably in the countryside. Why? One major reason is that we have exported much of our production, agricultural and otherwise, overseas, thus freeing up large tracts of land.

A comprehensive report published by Humbolt University of Berlin found that over the past 20 years, the EU has evolved into the single largest importer of agricultural commodities and food worldwide. In 2007/2008, for example, almost 35 million hectares of land beyond European borders, almost equivalent to the territory of Germany, was used for the benefit of Europeans. This makes the EU a net food importer of so-called “virtual agricultural land”, placing it at risk, the report says, of accusations of land grabbing, and contributing to “negative economic externalities in the form of reductions in natural habitats such as tropical rain forests and increasing greenhouse gas emissions from converting forests and grasslands into cropland”.

How can we build a rewilding movement that simultaneously resists and challenges these negative socio-ecological impacts? For it is here, I would argue, that the crisis lies most explicitly. I was disappointed to note that an engagement with the causes behind this freeing up of land does not seem to be present in rewilding literature. There seems, instead, to be a quiet celebration of this process. Dolly Jorgenson refers to the opportunities “declining agricultural production” opens for rewilding, yet does not investigate further. The journalist George Monbiot says:

“In Europe, between 2000 and 2030 we’ll see 30 million hectares of land being vacated by farmers, which is an area the size of Poland. It’s in places like these… where arable farming is much less viable, that I think we have enormous potential for rewilding”.

I am glad Monbiot mentions Poland. For one of the main drivers behind ‘depopulation’ in rural areas here is loss of livelihoods in the face of EU-backed capitalist industrialization of the countryside. Today, Poland is facing rising organized protest from farmers unable to compete on the market, facing imposed EU standards that favour large-scale agriculture, and unable to sell domestic produce even locally due to restrictive health and safety proscriptions. Mobilizations and sit ins have been the result. In February 2015, for example, 150 tractors blockaded the main motorway leading into Warsaw – the country’s largest farmer uprising.

Poland’s largest farmer uprising, February 2015. Source: Natural Society

One of their main concerns also relates to land grabbing. As a 2015 European Parliament report found, land grabbing is a “creeping phenomenon” that is not alien to the European mainland – indeed, it is occurring increasingly, often via a new asset class of banking, pension and insurance funds, and concentrated particularly within Eastern European states. The report finds:

“Against the backdrop of dramatic levels of land concentration and the rapid exit of Europe’s small farms, farmland grabbing, through its control, privatization and/or dispossession of natural resources, has become an active factor in the further weakening of the socio-economic and environmental vitality of the rural sector. It is leading to the further erosion of Europe’s model of family farming based on a sustainable and multifunctional form of agriculture and blocking the entry into agriculture of young and aspiring farmers.”

The key point here is that there is nothing neutral about processes of rural depopulation. Rather than passively celebrate their demise, should rewilding advocates not align themselves with small-scale farmers, whose practices, at least in Europe, can often encourage far greater biodiversity, and are themselves perhaps part of the very notion of ‘wild’ we might want to cultivate – non-homogenous, diverse, non-standardised, and self-willed?

We should also pause and reflect deeply on the paradox that, while we celebrate depopulation in enabling rewilding, we do so while seemingly claiming neo-Malthusian viewpoints on over-crowding and at a time when thousands of people have risked their lives to journey to Europe in search of refuge but are literally being fenced out and forced back with rhetoric of ‘swamping’, ‘inundation’ and ‘flooding’.

Are Malthusian arguments for ‘space for nature’ feeding into a lack of a European response to refugees? How does rewilding relate to growing European nationalist discourses? We must be at least asking such questions. What does it mean to talk about rewilding without interrogating the violent structures that are perhaps involved in making it possible? I fear a loss of the very enchantment and progressive hope that rewilding seeks to preserve.

This leads me to my third and final point.

Given the context I have just discussed, it is striking that Central and Eastern Europe seems to be becoming somewhat of a home for rewilding. Rewilding expert Jamie Lorimer himself commented on this back at the Leeds conference in his keynote presentation.

For example, Rewilding Europe, mentioned earlier, has become the leading European platform for rewilding and is trialing its activities so far in nine European areas across ten countries. Eight of these areas are listed on the website at present and shown in the map below. Six out of eight of these are located within Europe’s top twenty poorest countries (Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, Croatia, and Portugal). One is located in northern Sweden in Lapland, home of the indigenous Sami peoples. The last is located in Italy.


Why are the historically marginalized regions of Central and Eastern Europe seemingly becoming centre stage for rewilding? This seems an important question to at least ask. Is it linked to de-agrarianization? Should we not interrogate the unequal power dynamics at play between West and East in this set up?

Funding for this initiative is coming from largely Western European-based organizations, including 3 million Euro startup money from the Dutch Postcode Lottery, support from WWF-Netherlands, and backing from London-based ‘conservation enterprise’ investment company, Conservation Capital. This latter organization has “raised and structured over 200 million Euros of private investment finance for conservation-based businesses across 26 countries” and interested in developing a “nature-based economy in key areas of rural Europe where declining forms of economic activity (primarily agriculture) will be replaced with new wildlife and wilderness-based businesses”.

What sorts of relationships of bio-capitalism are we witnessing here? Or should we more see this as a redistribution of resources in a positive light? Where is the debate on this?


In his recent book Extinction: A Radical History, Ashley Dawson explicitly ties the issue of extinction to capitalist modes of production, exploitation and histories of dispossession. As such he calls for an “anti-capitalist movement against extinction [that] must be framed in terms of a refusal to turn land, people, flora, and fauna into commodities” particularly when cloaked “in arguments about preserving biodiversity”.

I must agree, and yet Dawson seems to limit his critique too narrowly to relations between ‘Global North and South’. He bemoans the fact that “all too often rewilding schemes focus exclusively on wealthy areas of the planet”, such as Europe. While I support Dawson’s radical focus on distributive justice, I would caution that rewilding could come in capitalist guise itself.

Moreover, an indiscriminate lens on the ‘Global North’ does little to reveal the inequities and power relations occurring within Europe’s own borders, not to mention placing a generalized blame for colonialism on countries that have never been colonial powers, and indeed, recently, have themselves been explored through a post-colonial lens.

Once again, Eastern Europe gets invisibilized and erased from notions of ‘Europe’ and the ‘Global North’ more generally. Of course European countries are much wealthier than the world’s poorest, but that still does not alter the huge discrepancies between European countries in which many were only counted as ‘European’ very recently, and even then, precariously so.

To conclude – rewilding is not a return but a future-in-the-making. It is a wholly natural-cultural project in becoming-with. Imaginations of rewilded places must therefore be steeped in the recognition of what political ecologist Bruce Braun calls the “irreducible nature of experimentation at the heart of rewilding practices”. Where we make them, how come, with and without whom, all matter to the kinds of experiments we are carrying out. History itself is forgotten in this process at our peril.

(First blogged on



Degrowth beyond environmentalism: Or shaking the temple of growthism, speaking the growth taboo, and sowing the seeds of generative doubt

Undisciplined Environments, a conference held in Stockholm 20 – 23rd March 2016, was an intensive four-day introduction to all things latest in political ecology. Not surprisingly, considering its exponentially growing significance, the degrowth movement got at least a couple of panels dedicated to it, plus I’m sure a good amount of corridor chat, mentions from speakers, and presence in the form of the Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era publication in the conference’s impromptu ‘bookshop’. Degrowth is growing. But do all agree on what ‘degrowth’ is about and does that matter for the movement?

Going along to one of the degrowth panels I found the papers presented very interesting in their breadth of original data. (Unfortunately I missed most of the first one – which was about degrowth as a movement for peace. Intuitively engaging but I won’t comment as I was not there!)We heard about research that had been conducted on the environmental values and attitudes of a sample of participants from the Fourth International Conference on Degrowth at Leipzig in 2014, pointing out via complex plotted axis on graphs the hypocrisies of probably many of us sitting in the room at the time (shamefully including in large part myself!) – so-called modernist rationalists who say ‘do as I say, not as I do!’  – i.e. fly to international conferences, eat a non-vegetarian diet, and consume technology like there’s no tomorrow (literally). Next up was impressively thorough statistical analysis on European ‘degrowth’ proneness in relation to a series of environmental actions that citizens of a wide number of EU countries might participate in, such as recycling, paying green taxes or using public transport. And finally there was a paper on working-class environments, looking at the cross-over of nine trade unions’ strategies across five or so countries in Europe with environmentally progressive agendas. All super interesting as examples of research into trends towards environmentalism, particularly the latter as working-class environmentalisms get lean attention. Yet – in connecting this to the movement, I found myself wondering what was specifically ‘degrowth’ about these actions? How were they different to other forms of environmental activism such as that propelled by Transition Towns, NGO campaigns, or even government-endorsed programmes to ‘green’ consumerism, the economy and capitalism itself?

It’s not that I think environmental behaviours and actions– such as being vegan, not flying, consuming less, recycling, being pro-renewables, and calling for green taxes – aren’t good things in themselves. They definitely are.  But, there are plenty of other groups and movements that are already focusing on these things. I was also left wondering if all those who advocate for the types of activities mentioned here are themselves aware that they are considered part of the degrowth movement? Would they all sign up to – and use – that term? That is important in considering how crystallized the movement is politically. For many of these actions are often still compatible with capitalist growth in both their individual and co-optable nature – particularly perhaps taxes and green lifestyle choices. It seems to me that degrowth needs to go beyond this, as I am sure many agree. But what does that mean?

Degrowth scholars Federico Demaria, Francois Schneider, Filka Sekulova and Joan Martinez-Alier (2013: 210) in their article ‘What is Degrowth?’ say that it ‘brings together a heterogeneous group of actors who focus on housing and urban planning, financial issues and alternative money systems, agroecology and food systems, international trade, climate justice, children’s education and domestic work, meaningful employment and cooperatives, as well as transport and alternative energy systems.’ They claim degrowth’s diversity as a strength of the movement. Networking networks, as the authors call it, I agree can be a powerful strategy for generating change. But like them, I also agree that these actions must form a greater sum of parts if they are to equal a broader and visionary ‘degrowth movement’. Campaigning for increased pedestrian or cycle facilities, frugal living, or experiments in sharing economies are positive steps in a useful direction – but, as individual actions they could steer us away from the progressive degrowth society we aspire to if not brought together into a more holistic and radical synthesis. As Demaria and colleagues say (ibid: 206): ‘Degrowth only makes sense when its sources are taken into account, meaning not just ecology and bioeconomics, but also meaning of life and well-being, anti-utilitarianism, justice and democracy. Taken independently they can lead to incomplete and reductionist projects fundamentally incompatible with the ideas of the degrowth movement’.

I would say that the concept of degrowth is a radically challenging and politicizing one. What makes it different (and uncomfortable) is that it is fundamentally anti-capitalist, since a no-growth society, even if not immediately non-capitalist, calls forth new modes of development and organization that are post-capitalist in nature. Unlike ‘sustainability’, ‘green economy’ or even ‘organic’, degrowth is perhaps the one concept that capitalism cannot co-opt and sell back to us. Therein lies its strength – it is a safe space for rethinking the politics of ecology. For some this makes the movement problematic – literally no one will ‘buy’ it (note the growth-centric turn of phrase). I think for sure many won’t – and that’s ok. Not all environmentalists or social activists will sign up to the cause. But by being present in the arena, degrowth can contribute hugely to changing the parameters of what is on and off the table for all involved. That in itself would be a substantial achievement that should not be underestimated

Since its de-politicization by the capitalist spirit of sustainability, the need to articulate what lies beyond environmentalism is a key task for degrowthers. I strongly believe it is a degrowth movement that aligns ecological and social visions, and yet I think if this is to succeed in building something new (even if for sure incorporating elements of the ‘old’) then I would agree with Demaria et al’s statement (which I think slightly contradicts their earlier emphasis on wide heterogeneity as strength) that ‘We need not only agreements within the movement on what it advocates, but also on how to implement the proposals.’ This sounds like a call for a strategy, or at least a number of overarching diagnostic approaches bringing together different insights. What kind? Here are a couple of interconnected initial thoughts…

First, we should view growth from a psychological perspective, seeking to understand why questioning it seems to be so painful. Growth forms a core to constructions of identities, perceptions of ontological security, frames of representation and sense of purpose for many. It is not just an economic process or structure – neither is it simply the accumulated sum of our individual or even collective actions. It is not a purely rational logic either (what is?), but a deeply emotional and subconscious one, even spiritual, with its own rituals, rites and incantations. Thus, I would suggest that growthism can be usefully viewed as a temple of faith with its own language, thought-processes, morals and practices and at which many faithful followers worship. The consequence of shaking faith in growth will be a psychological and existential fallout that is perhaps already occurring. And so, degrowthers must be prepared to be spirit doctors as well as system analysts.

Taking an anthropological perspective, we should also understand and then reframe growth’s wider cultural role. In many parts of today’s world, questioning growth is tantamount to a social and political taboo at many levels. Taboos serve a social function related to maintaining the distinctions between the sacred and profane, between clean and unclean. The taboo on questioning growth maintains a specific social order. Degrowth radically challenges that taboo by speaking its name, unflinchingly and persistently asking ‘does growth really equal progress and prosperity?’ A lot of research points to the negative consequences of growth on social and environmental impacts. Yet, I would suggest that beyond those likely to read this blog post, that negative correlation is not so readily called to mind. Decoupling growth from positive social, economic, environmental and political goods in the minds of many people is work that still very much needs doing. Mainstream party political manifestos tell us so. Championing that research, re-cycling it, re-inscribing it, communicating and re-communicating in amplified forms should be a central task of degrowth. Raising economic and ecological literacy are all part of that task.

Finally, we might wish to come at growth as skeptic philosophers. The degrowth movement should emphasize actions that increase the capacity and propensity to doubt growthism – and at all levels (individual, community, societal, government, transversal). We are here to sow the seeds of healthy doubt – many seeds, thousands, if not millions… To spread them, watch them grow, help to harvest them, tend to them. But the kind of doubt we should be spreading is a creative doubt, a generative one – not a fearful or alienating form of doubt.  One with new, hopeful visions on the other side that yes, draw on ‘old’ and ‘new’ environmentalisms and other progressive strands of thought.

Together, I think these complementary approaches, that could perhaps be more central strands of the movement, could serve to change the nature of the wider debate dramatically.

To this end, I was recently involved in setting up the UK’s All Party Parliamentary Group on Limits to Growth – a cross-party group of UK MPs and Peers who sign up to the idea that ‘we need to talk about growth’. When the group was being created, the majority of those involved did not believe that it would get the requisite number of parliamentary members to make the group official (five), particularly not under the banner of any conception of ‘limits’ to growth. It did: the group has 13 members and it is being launched on April 19th 2016. Growth is being questioned even by those in positions of power. To prevent appropriation by any conservative forces, and, at the same time, bring on board new allies in non-traditional progressive champions, the degrowth movement is well-placed to provide the bottom-up leadership to direct attention towards possible democratic and progressive solutions as more begin to wake up to growthism’s limits. This I think requires more than a network of networks, or individual actions – but a strategy for collective change, including who or what counts as ‘in’ and ‘out’. Demaria et al (ibid: 207) argue that: ‘The movement has an urgent pending task: to elaborate a transition (better called a transformation) path in rich societies from the actual crisis of economic growth to socially accepted degrowth’. Perhaps a possible step for the next degrowth conference in Budapest this September?

(First blogged at The Seed Box Blog: