Rewilding in Cultural Layered Landscapes

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This post was originally published on The White Horse Press blog and is drawn from a forthcoming article by the author that will appear in a Special Issue of Environmental Values  in August 2018.

Whereas natural areas are still disappearing at a rapid pace in many parts of the world, in other parts species are coming back and landscapes are becoming more wild again. Nature resurges spontaneously where landscapes are being abandoned by humans, notably in parts of Eastern and Southern Europe, where species like bear, lynx and wolf are recolonising the old agricultural landscapes where they were extirpated centuries ago.

Caption: Artist’s impression of a Pleistocene rewilding, by Mauricio Anton. Source: Wikimedia Commons

But it is not just these spontaneous process that drive the wildlife comeback – rewilding is a new conservation strategy: instead of just protecting the last remaining wild places, rewilders aim to bring back wildness in the places where it has disappeared in centuries of human cultivation. The new wild is welcomed by many, but raises concern with others, and not just for the reasons one might expect. Farmers who have to abandon their land typically do not see the encroaching wilderness as something to be applauded. But there are other reasons why some are sceptical about the new wild. Heritage protectionists have long stressed the value of these anthropogenic landscapes as cultural heritage, and European nature conservationists have traditionally focused their efforts on protecting hemerophiles, those species that manage to live next to humans in these traditional cultural landscapes. In contrast, rewilding seeks to make way for the wildness that human history has repressed, that which has a non-human origin, exists above or beyond human history, and eschews human appropriation. Thus, rewilding not only involves a new approach to landscape conservation, it also challenges the traditional view of cultural landscapes itself.

Meanwhile, a similar tension can be seen within environmental philosophy. Environmental ethicists have long focused their attention almost exclusively on articulating the value of wildernesses, and have tended to ignore the places that most humans actually inhabit: the most – anthropogenic cultural landscapes and cities. For many years, environmental philosophers focused on finding ecocentric alternatives to dominant anthropocentric (human chauvinist) perspectives on the value of nature. To show the existence of the intrinsic value of nature independent of human valuation, the focus quickly went to the so-called wildernesses, places where nature had been left untouched by humans. This dominant perspective on non-anthropocentric environmental ethics has always had its critics, but it has remained the dominant approach by far. A similar thing is true for the focus on wilderness: the concept has been strongly criticised, most prominently by William Cronon, but it has remained highly influential. Both environmental philosophy and conservation policies tend to focus on the need to protect the last remaining wild places against human disturbance, and seem less interested in the places that have been altered by humans.

Recently, this focus on ‘undisturbed’ nature has come under pressure with the growing awareness that untouched nature hardly exists anymore and that even many places long conceived of as pristine wildernesses were influenced by humans long ago. Conversely, the need to rethink the value of humanly altered landscapes has become apparent. For instance, the centuries-long history of land use in Europe has often produced cultural landscapes that are biodiverse and culturally rich at the same time. Seeing these cultural landscapes merely as ‘disturbed’ by humans fails to do justice to the way that human history has shaped them. This realisation has led to the development of an alternative take on environmental values that focuses on the significance of narratives[1]and argues that the ways environments matter to people is also important for conservation, an Old World response[2]to the traditional dominance of the New World perspective in environmental philosophy. Compared to the earlier non-anthropocentrism in environmental philosophy, the narrative approach seems better equipped to justify societal practices of conservation of old cultural landscapes for both cultural and ecological reasons.

Caption: The Lake District in England is a paradigm of cultural landscape, as discussed by Isis Brook in the forthcoming Special Issue. Source: Wikimedia Commons

However, the resurgence of the concepts of wildness and wilderness due to the rise of rewilding as a new conservation strategy and a societal movement within the Old World context of Europe and elsewhere, again calls for a re-examination of the old philosophical debate between anthropocentric and non-anthropocentric perspectives on landscape.

Even though the term ‘rewilding’ was introduced in biological conservation science by Michael Soulé and Reed Noss as a term for ‘the scientific argument for restoring big wilderness based on the regulatory roles of large predators’, as the practices of rewilding started to spread, the term has gathered extra meanings beyond strict scientific ones. ‘Taken as a whole’, Dolly Jørgensen argued, ‘rewilding discourse seeks to erase human history and involvement in the land and flora and fauna’.[3]For that reason, rewilding often worries those who care about the old cultural landscapes (for cultural or ecological reasons). Rewilders are accused of being blind to the value of the old cultural landscapes, the argument goes, and their attempt to erase signs of human history from the land show a blatant disregard of the many meaningful connections between local communities and the landscapes they have inhabited for so long.

Caption: Cultural landscape of the river Gulp between Slenaken and Beutenaken in the Netherlands. Dutch landscapes are addressed by Hans Renes in the Special Issue of Environmental Values. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Indeed, some proponents of rewilding today fall back on the language that was developed by the early wilderness advocates, implying a sharp separation between wild nature and human culture. Yet, other rewilding advocates feel that rewilding in cultural landscapes requires a fundamentally different approach. They agree that one cannot simply turn back the clock and restore landscapes to a ‘pre-disturbance condition’. Rather than seeking to restore a situation of the past, rewilding should be oriented towards the future and seek to introduce wildness back into society; while acknowledging the historic nature of the European landscape, rewilding should play a role in reviving forgotten elements of place history, and might even boost local economies.

Caption: Visitors admire Dutch cultural landscapes in miniature. Martin Drenthen addresses the reasons for appreciation of cultural landscapes in his contribution to the Special Issue of Environmental Values. Photo by Valentijn te Plate. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Despite these attempts to reconcile rewilding with concerns over landscape history, cultural identity and cultural heritage, clear tensions remain between the view that cultural heritage landscapes should be protected as they are, and the view that sees the need for humans to step back and make more room for natural processes and be more inclusive towards non-anthropocentric narratives and perspectives in the landscape. Rewilding therefore is not just a new conservation strategy informed by new conservation science, but also a new perspective on human-nature relationships that challenges those who seek to protect wilderness outside the human world, but also those who believe that the human world exists independently of and separated from the wild world. The debate on rewilding, in other words, raises new questions about the relation between human history and nature, and between an anthropocentric focus on the narrative meaning of landscapes and those more traditional reflections on the need for a less anthropocentric perspective that acknowledges the value of nature’s autonomy. A balanced view on rewilding in culturally saturated landscapes should adopt a human inclusive view, a rich understanding of landscape history, and an open eye for the tensions between the different perspectives that are in play in the conflicts about rewilding. Rewilding of cultural landscapes unavoidably involves questions about the meaning of landscape, history and the relationship of humans and the natural world. Conflicts between interpretations often lack a simple solution, but require a genuine discussion between stakeholders about their understanding of landscape and self, in which the parties are sincerely interested in each other’s perspectives.

[1]See John O’Neil, Alan Holland and Andrew Light. 2008. Environmental Values.Routledge.

[2] M. Drenthen and J. Keulartz (eds). 2014. Old World and New World Perspectives in Environmental Philosophy. Cham: Springer.

[3] D. Jørgensen. 2015. ‘Rethinking Rewilding’. Geoforum 65: 482–488.


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Associate professor Environmental philosophy Institute for Science in Society Radboud University Nijmegen The Netherlands

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